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May 12, 2009

Iraq Briefing - 08 May 09 - General Ray Odierno Reports

Last Friday the commanding general of Multi-National Force-Iraq himself, General Ray Odierno spoke with reporters at the Pentagon, providing an update on ongoing security operations in Iraq. Odierno was in Washington and as one may suspect the briefing room was packed with journalists from U.S. and foreign news organizations. Odierno gave a 5 minute opening statement, and then answered questions for over 40 minutes.

Odierno assumed command of MNF-Iraq on September 16th, 2008, succeeding General David Petraus.

As a Lieutenant General Odierno had previously been commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, a job he held from May 2006 to July 2008. The job of corps commander is to run the war on a day to day basis. He implements the MNF-Iraq commander's vision. Below the Corps commander are the divisional commanders (two-star, or Major General), each of which headquarters a region of Iraq (see org chart here)

Called "The Patton of Counterinsurgency" by people who know what they're talking about, next to Petraeus Odierno is the person most responsible for the success of the surge in 2007-08.

This and other briefings can be seen at DODvClips. The Pentagon Channel also has briefings, news stories, as well as 24x7 steaming video, so visit it as well.

The transcript is at DefenseLink.

Although Iraq is somewhat out of the news these days, it should still be very much in our minds. What happens there will affect the region, the general progress of the War on Jihadism (or whatever you want to call it), and our reputation in the world.

Recently there have been a spate of high-profile, or "spectacular attacks" by insurgents that have made the news. As Bill Roggio noted last month, "AQI is down but not out." Watch the video and read the transcript to see how this and other issues are addresed, but below the fold I'll review parts of the briefing.

From General Odierno's opening remarks:

GEN. ODIERNO: ...What I'd like to start out by talking about is, first, we continue to see overall levels of violence at or near the lowest levels since the summer of 2003 inside of Iraq. And overall, from an overall perspective, security in Iraq remains improved.

Obviously, over the last few weeks, the Iraqi people have seen high-profile attacks that remind all of us that the situation still is fragile in some areas. While the number of attacks is low, it's obvious that the terrorists are intent -- are conducting high-profile suicide attacks designed to garner attention and spark sectarian discord within Iraq.

But I would emphasize that this is not 2006 or 2007. We have yet to see sectarian retribution....

The al-Askari mosque, or "golden mosque," in Samarra, was bombed in February 2006 and again in June of 2007 by al Qaeda in Iraq. One of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam, the second bombing ignited a wave of sectarian violence that turned into near-civil war and threatened to tear the country apart. This sectarian strife was precisely what AQI had wanted. They are obviously trying to do it again.

Although this is somewhat off topic, the insurgent groups in Afghanistan made a decision a year or so ago to switch from attacking coalition forces to directly attacking civilians. Most likely they are trying to emulate the success of AQI in 2006.

The SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) signed (I think) last November, provides for the government of Iraq to take over more of the security, and among other things for U.S. forces to leave the cities. Odierno addresses it:

GEN. ODIERNO: As you know, President Obama announced that, at the end of August in 2010, we will end combat operations and change our mission to one of an advisory and training role. We will maintain a force of about 35(,000) to 50,000 to ensure that we can achieve our new missions while providing sufficient force protection and still target -- and still be able to conduct counterterrorism missions.

According to the security agreement, all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq by the end of 2011, but this doesn't mean that our relationship with Iraq will end. I remind everyone that we signed two agreements back in December. The second was the Strategic Framework Agreement, which is designed to ensure cooperation in many areas between the United States and the government of Iraq -- areas such as medical, cultural, scientific, economic and other endeavors that will strengthen the country and help our two countries enjoy a long, enduring friendship built on mutual respect as sovereign nations.

On to the Q & A. As it was a long briefing we'll only examine a few of the key exchanges. Unfortunately, unlike in most briefings, the journalists are not identified in the transcript, so you'll have to watch the video to find out who they are.

Q General, what's your current opinion of whether the Iraqi security forces are going to be up to the task of assuming responsibility for the cities on deadline? And do you think there's any chance at this point that this deadline will slip?

GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, well, frankly, we're basically out of all the cities except for two, Baghdad and Mosul. We are on our way out of Baghdad. We've been slowly turning that over to the Iraqi security forces now for about three months, and I think they've made some pretty good progress.

We still have a major operation going inside of Mosul with all forces assisting and helping out. We expect that to end here within about 30 to 45 days, and then there'll be a decision to be made. I think if you ask the prime minister today, I think he would say that we will be out of the cities by the end of the 30th of June, and it is his decision....

Later, when pressed for how many U.S. troops would remain behind as advisers in the cities after the June 30 deadline, Odierno would not provide a precise number, but said that it might be 20% of what we have there now. However, he stressed that it is all conditions based.

Q General, a follow-up, sir. I know it's hard -- maybe it's hard to answer this question. How do you see Iraq after -- after the U.S. force leave?

GEN. ODIERNO: In 2011?

Q Yeah. How do you see the future?

GEN. ODIERNO: I think -- listen, I can't look into a crystal ball, but there's a couple things I will just say we -- I would ask you to look towards. One is, obviously, the national elections coming up. And I think we had very successful provincial elections. And I would say they were successful because the people voted on issues, they didn't vote on -- based on sectarian issues. They didn't vote based on -- based on potential religious standing. They voted on the issues that affected them every day.

It's going to be interesting to see how the national elections go, either in December or January, coming up. And I think how that goes, how the Iraqi people react to that, what the new government looks like, how does the government transition in the beginning of 2010 will have a lot to say with how the Iraqi government continues to improve and move forward, which prepares them for 2011.

So in my mind, it's much too early to be talking about. I think we're on the right path. I think we're on the right path that in -- at the end of 2011, the government of Iraq will be able to hold its own, will be able to stand up in the regional community, international community, as I look at it today.

If you ask me that a year from now, I might have a different opinion, but I think we're on track for that right now.

This next exchange goes to the issue of sectarian violence and private militia groups. As indicated above, this is the single biggest danger to stability in Iraq. As many have noted, loyalties in countries like Iraq are first clan, then tribe, then sect (Shia or Sunni), and finally country.

Q General, you mentioned before the cycle of sectarian violence. And I think that one kind of welcome development has been that Shi'ite groups thus far, despite the deaths of hundreds of civilians, have not yet responded. Are you seeing either a reemergence of traditional Shi'ite militias? Jaish al-Mahdi, Badr Brigades, are they reemerging? And if not, are you seeing any new groups that worry you that are sort of on the horizon that could be the source of reprisals?

GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I think -- I think, again, in terms of reprisals, we have several indicators with that. And one of them is, in fact, the formation of militias. We have seen no formation of militias or any -- any movement to form militias, any talk of forming militias in order to go after sectarian violence. So that is a very positive sign.

I think part of that has to do with the basic improvement of governance at the provincial levels that -- based on the fact that we now have provincial governments that are very active, that help us with that problem, and as well as the national government, who's able to address some of these issues. I think that helps.

Now, that said, we watch it very closely because we know what we don't want is some event to cause all of a sudden a -- what I would call a snowball rolling down the hill that accumulates momentum and causes a significant amount of sectarian violence. But again, we don't see any signs of that right now, of all the indicators we look at.

This final exchange that we look at will be of special interest to bloggers and all of you who have Facebook pages (which I'm guessing is probably everyone who reads this).

It turns out that General Odierno has his own Facebook page, where you too can become a fan. I am. Turns out General David Petraeus has his own Facebook page too, and at this point I'm sure most of the other commanders do too (it always being smart to take a cue on this sort of thing from one's boss). Follow the links and become a fan!

Q Hopefully this won't come across like a totally frivolous question --


Q -- but I understand you have your own Facebook page now -- (laughter) -- and that you're somewhat of a fan of social networking in the military.

Q And just talk about that for a minute.

GEN. ODIERNO: ...First, I realized about, you know, six months ago, I didn't -- I didn't know what Facebook was. I mean, I know it's been in place for a while. My son was on -- my -- both of my sons were on Facebook. My daughter was on Facebook. They used to talk about it. They used to talk about -- so my thought was, this is where young people communicate. This is a place where young people get together, they pass information. So I thought -- and really thought maybe it would be a good idea if I tried to do this. And I do it for a number of reasons.

One is to try to put out some information that's not normally seen on the news or, you know -- and something to let them know, maybe, some personal things about me, what it's like to be in Iraq, what it's like to be the commander in Iraq. So that's kind of the intent....

I think it's important for us -- the one thing I've learned over the last six years is you have to understand this global media explosion that we're having in a variety of forms, and that we have to try to figure it out and how we play in that, because people are interested in what the military is doing, because we -- we do play an important role in our nation's security. We do play an important role in the world. And so that's part of the reason why I did it....

Q Well, can I just briefly follow up and ask you -- I mean, because you have so many -- tens of thousands of young people serving in Iraq, what's your view about operational security, about whether it's Facebook or blogging or Twittering, them amongst themselves, them with their friends back home, how do you control this sort of thing?

GEN. ODIERNO: Again -- yeah, well, we put out guidelines and guidance. I mean, and we have to trust, then, that they will abide by the guidelines and guidance. And, obviously, we can check on it.

But, listen, it's going to happen. And that's how they communicate today. So we've got to allow them to do that, but we have to put guidelines on what you can and what you can't talk about.

It always comes down to we just don't want them to put the force at risk. We don't want to put the mission at risk. And so we've tried to put guidelines out that talks about that.

So, you know, you don't talk about future operations, you don't kind of talk about things that might be sensitive, obviously classified things. But, you know, so -- and the soldiers get it for the most part. I mean, we have a few hits and misses once in a while, but they understand that. But you got to let them do it. I mean, that's the bottom line....

Posted by Tom at May 12, 2009 9:00 AM

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