Thursday, March 25, 2010

General Works to Salvage Iraq Legacy

By STEVEN LEE MYERS and THOM SHANKER JOINT SECURITY STATION LOYALTY, IRAQ — In the muddled aftermath of Iraq’s election, the American commander here, Gen. Ray Odierno, landed at this base on the edge of Baghdad and reviewed the plan to close it. Joao Silva for The New York Times Gen. Ray Odierno, left, the top American commander in Iraq, recently met with soldiers at a base in Baghdad. He is reviewing plans for a troop withdrawal. Gen. Ray Odierno with Iraqi officers in Baghdad. He is working to hand over responsibility for Iraq's security to Iraqi forces. An Iraqi police division has moved its headquarters to the base, once the fortified enclave of Americans alone. The outcome of Iraq’s election, the torturous effort to form a new government, remained in doubt, but the withdrawal of American troops in this part of the country — “the thinning” of them, as the general put it — proceeded, seemingly irrevocably. “How we redeploy, how we turn this over,” General Odierno told the officers who gathered to brief him in a room crowded with flat-panel television screens and wallpapered with maps, “will go a long way to determining how this turns out.” “This” is the end of the war in Iraq, a conflict that General Odierno has shaped as much as any other American commander. From the 2003 invasion to the capture of Saddam Hussein, from the bloodiest days of sectarian carnage to the counteroffensive known as the surge, he has served the administration that started the war and now the one whose president campaigned to end it. As the senior American officer in Iraq since the fall of 2008, he has struggled against popular anger and apathy at home and fought internally for Iraq’s share of matériel increasingly flowing to Afghanistan. Ultimately, he is laboring to salvage the legacy of a deeply unpopular war. “People have to get past why we came here,” he said in an interview after his briefings, referring to the bitterly disputed reasons for invading Iraq seven years ago this month. “You have to stay away from that argument and understand we’re here,” he went on. “We have an opportunity. It could be better not only for the United States, but for overall stability in the Middle East. And we should take advantage of that.” Results from an election considered crucial to Iraq’s democratic evolution suggest a potentially explosive split in power, but General Odierno said he would meet President Obama’s deadline to reduce the number of American troops in Iraq to 50,000, from 98,000 today, by the end of August. Among those expected to leave Iraq then is the general himself. As the officer who must carry out Mr. Obama’s order to “responsibly withdraw from Iraq,” General Odierno plays a role that is changing over time: from a commander who ran military operations across the country to one who now must give way to local security forces — even as he exerts influence behind the scenes. In the months ahead, the general said, he anticipates that he will focus less on combat missions and more on trying to build Iraq’s still feeble security, political and economic institutions. That, he said, will require a sustained effort extending beyond the troop withdrawal. During a visit to Washington before the election, the general said he was advocating the establishment of an Office of Military Cooperation within the American Embassy in Baghdad to sustain the relationship after the Dec. 31, 2011, deadline for withdrawing all American troops. He expressed doubts that the Iraqi government would request the presence of American ground forces after the deadline, although the bilateral treaty leaves open the possibility. “We have to stay committed to this past 2011,” he said. “I believe the administration knows that. I believe that they have to do that in order to see this through to the end. It’s important to recognize that just because U.S. soldiers leave, Iraq is not finished.” Or as Col. David M. Miller, commander of the 10th Mountain Division’s Second Brigade, told the general as he described plans to keep financing water and greenhouse projects on Baghdad’s outskirts even after his troops pulled back to a more remote base in the desert: “We’re not just cutting and running.” General Odierno has now been in Iraq for 45 of the 84 months of the war, a period of his career that parallels the uneven narrative of the conflict, for better and worse. His tactics as commander of the Fourth Infantry Division in Salahuddin in the months after the invasion in 2003, which were criticized as overly aggressive, created a public impression of him as a heavy-handed, even brutish, leader. Thomas E. Ricks, the military writer who has waged what amounts to an argument of years with the commander, stridently criticized General Odierno’s first tour in Iraq for what he said were ogre-like tactics and bitingly called him “Shreko” in an online column last month. Many people dispute such characterizations, portraying him as a skilled commander who helped devise and then carried out the counterinsurgency strategy that, with the increase in soldiers that President George W. Bush announced in January 2007, helped stem the sectarian violence. The senior commander at the time, Gen. David H. Petraeus, received most of the public attention, but officers and analysts say that General Odierno made the strategy a success. “Petraeus fought the war ‘up,’ but Odierno fought it ‘down,’ since he was responsible for implementing the new counterinsurgency strategy, which he did very, very well,” said John A. Nagl, an Iraq veteran who now is president of the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan policy institute in Washington. He said General Odierno’s contributions remained “underappreciated.” General Odierno navigated the transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration far better than his counterpart in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, who was forced into retirement in May 2009 because President Obama and the Pentagon leadership felt he had not done enough to reverse the drift in a war long overshadowed by Iraq. The Obama administration’s focus on Afghanistan has created tensions behind the scenes as General Odierno has lobbied to keep as many troops and weapons as possible, while still reducing the force here to meet Mr. Obama’s planned withdrawal. In secret video-teleconferences at the Pentagon, he has animatedly resisted the transfer of too many intelligence drone aircraft, essential for surveying the battlefield and defending American and Iraqi forces when necessary. “His argument is: ‘I still have a job today. I still have this geography to cover. I have to manage the risk,’ ” a senior Department of Defense official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the classified strategy sessions. “He’s like a pit bull on a poodle. He’s just not going to let go.” In two recent interviews, though, General Odierno acknowledged that he was preparing for a day when the Iraq campaign — and his role in it — ended. Asked if the war in Iraq was effectively over, he replied with some hesitation, then at length. “War is a very different concept,” he said. “This is a — I call it more of an operation, not a war. We won’t know if we were successful, as I said the other day, for 3, 5 or 10 years. And successful will be what the government of Iraq does with what we’ve given them, and how we continue to support them and the relationship that we develop with them post-2011.” By the time he leaves, he will have spent more than four years in Iraq, like tens of thousands of soldiers, at great personal cost. In 2004, his son, Lt. Anthony Odierno, lost an arm when a grenade slammed into his Humvee while he was on a patrol in Baghdad. Family members do not discuss it publicly, although the experience no doubt deepened their commitment to wounded soldiers. The general’s wife, Linda, put the family’s golden retriever, Tootsie, through a special program to be trained as a “therapy dog,” and they regularly visit troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. General Odierno’s remarks to soldiers at the base here suggested that each casualty affected him deeply. In a recent meeting with the Second Brigade’s commanders, General Odierno brought up an accident the day before that had killed two soldiers. Their armored vehicle rolled over, possibly as a result of reckless driving. “It’s a waste,” he told the officers. He later pinned Purple Hearts on two soldiers wounded when a rocket-propelled grenade struck their guard post. “Even when you are a general,” he told dozens of soldiers attending the medal ceremony, “this business is very personal.”

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