JUDY WOODRUFF: Iraqi troops and police guarded checkpoints on their own in Baghdad today, just one day after U.S. troops ended their large-scale presence in the big cities. Baghdad residents expressed positive feelings about the change.
NAJIM EDDIN ABOUD, Local Resident (through translator): The pullout means happiness for all Iraqi people. It is a step to terminate the occupation of Iraq, and, God willing, our security forces will fill the gap.
BASSIL JABBAR, Local Resident (through translator): I cannot express my feelings towards this achievement. We have been waiting for this day for a long time.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But this public optimism comes amid many private fears of an increase in deadly attacks by militants. A bombing on Tuesday in a food market north of Baghdad killed dozens and wounded scores more.
One hundred and thirty thousand U.S. troops are still in Iraq. Their full withdrawal is expected by the end of 2011.
Controlling sectarian violence
JUDY WOODRUFF: I discussed the new situation with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno, early today.
General Odierno, thank you very much for talking with us. We are one day into the beginning of this pullout. Tell us how it's going so far.
GEN. RAY ODIERNO, Commander, Multi-National Force-Iraq: It's going fine, no problem at all. As I've said before, we've been actually moving out of the cities now for about eight months, so we've been gradually doing this. So, for us, it's not a big change, because we've been working our way up to this date. But so far, so good.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Tell us, General, how this new arrangement is going to work. With U.S. troops moving out of the cities, will they wait for Iraqi forces to call them on the phone and say, "Hey, we need some help"?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Well, what we have is we have U.S. forces in joint coordination centers all over Iraq, inside of the cities, and they are there doing training, advising, assisting, and they also are coordinating with the Iraqis.
So we have these relationships that are built from the lowest levels up to the highest levels that allow us to communicate. And if they need assistance, they can ask, and we will provide that.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So they're not technically out of the cities. They're still there, but they're working side by side with the Iraqis?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: That's right, but we're at much lower numbers. These are just small advisory and coordination cells, and they're not related to combat formation, such as brigades and battalions. Those are now outside the cities.
But we have coordination cells that work very closely with the Iraqis to enable them and train them and advise them and coordinate with them.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So you have, what, 130,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq, and you just mentioned around the cities. We read about these so-called security belts. How do those work? Are those to keep the extremists out? What's that about?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Yes, well, you know, we learned as we did the surge of forces into Iraq, that the belts surrounding the cities, they tend to be what we call the support zones. They tend to be where sometimes they'll establish some safe havens and sanctuaries to support operations inside of the big city.
So what we've done is we've moved what we call the belts around the city, and we occupy those key areas to provide security and stability, which will make it more difficult for freedom of movement of the insurgent and extremist organizations.
So Iraqis will have inside of the city. We'll surround the belts of the major cities to make sure it's more difficult for them to establish themselves and get support.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet you're still having violence in Iraq. Four U.S. troops were killed yesterday; something like 300 Iraqis have been killed just in the last week. If this level of violence continues, what will the U.S. forces do?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Well, again, we'll have to work that with the government of Iraq. I would just say that, as I look at violence all over Iraq -- and you're exactly right, the numbers are high over the last 10 to 12 days -- but when I look at security incidents around the country, they're still very low.
So what we have is we have groups trying to conduct high-profile attacks to bring attention on themselves in order to get -- in order to disrupt the government, in order to disrupt the progress that's been made, and to bring attention on their own organizations so they can start to recruit.
The good part has been is that the Iraqi people are not reacting to this. We see no signs of return to sectarian violence. We see all the right comments being made by the leadership. We see the air of the Iraqi people against a few of these organizations, which I believe is going to make it more and more difficult for them to operate.
To be honest, in June, it was the lowest amount of overall incidents we've had since we've been keeping records in Iraq. That said, we had several high-profile attacks, as you pointed out. Those are concerning. And we will continue to go after these small cells who continue to take innocent Iraqi lives for no reason.
Iran's influence in Iraq
JUDY WOODRUFF: You say you don't see an uptick in sectarian violence, and yet we're reading here in the U.S. the worries about Sunnis, the so-called former members of the so-called Awakening Councils, who are not getting what they expect from the Maliki government, Shia-led government. Is this something of concern to you?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: We track this every single day. We watch this very closely. The government of Iraq has said they have paid them, they have made all the payments.
You know, when they were having budget problems, every other part of their budget was cut, except for the budget for the Sons of Iraq and the Awakening movement. They allocated $350 million for '09 for that. They have made the payments.
They were late in April and May because of the late approval of the budget by the Council of Representatives, but they immediately now have shifted back into gear. They are paying them on time. And we track that very, very closely every month when it's time for them to be paid.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Separately, General Odierno, we read about worries on the part of U.S. officials about what's going on in the Kurdish region, tensions between the Kurds and other groups and, separately from that, influence by Iran on Shiite militias in Iraq, especially after the domestic unrest in Iran. How are you dealing with all of that?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Yes, as we move forward here, as security has gotten better here, what you're starting to see is what we call political drivers of instability, and those are starting to become the real issues that have to be worked out through political means, the first being the Kurd-Arab disagreements and discussions.
And that's over the disputed territories that are close to the Kurdish region, as well as -- and it goes around three provinces up north. It is about the oil law. Those have to be worked out politically.
Our goal is to make sure that it is worked out through discussion and diplomatic means and it's not worked out through violence. We have our forces that interact with the Kurdish Regional Government forces, as well as the government of Iraq forces, on a daily basis to make sure that this doesn't move to violence.
And we hope that they will talk about this and discuss these issues in the proper forums. The U.N. has now established a forum. They've had three meetings over the last two weeks to discuss these issues. And we hope that they will stay along that path as we move forward.
In terms of Iran, Iran has had over the last six or eight months here two setbacks. One has been the bilateral agreement that was signed between the United States and Iraq, which established a security agreement, as well as a long-term strategic framework agreement for economic, cultural, and other kinds of development.
Secondly, in the provincial elections in January, all the candidates that were in any way associated with Iran lost and did not do very well in the provincial elections.
So because of this, Iran continues to attempt to try to have influence inside of Iraq. And in my mind, they are still creating some violence by funding surrogates, by training surrogates, and they're trying to do this in order to gain influence inside of Iraq.
What's important is the Iraqi people have understood this, they are rejecting this, and we are working with the Iraqi security forces to try to expose and arrest those who are acting as Iranian surrogates.
Readiness of Iraqi forces
JUDY WOODRUFF: General Odierno, let me bring you back to the question of the readiness of the Iraqi forces. We know that, last November, the Pentagon issued a report saying only 17 of 174 Iraqi battalions were ready, were counterinsurgency ready. Where do they stand now?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Yes, I've been working now -- I've been here for basically the last three years with just a few months, and I've been here through the very dark times of 2006 and '07 when sectarian violence was at its height. And I'm now here in 2009 as we've worked through that with the success we had with the surge of forces.
During that time, what I've seen is a significant increase in the capacity and capability of the Iraqi security forces. They have been in the fight. They have been working very closely with our forces. We've had a close partnership with them. We have seen a great improvement in the leadership. We've seen great improvement in their will and their ability to fight.
They still have some problems with logistics. We are working on that this year and next year, but that will be part of what we continue to support them in.
They still don't quite have all the modernization necessary. They're still bringing on their air force and their helicopters, and we're helping them with that.
But, by and large, their army units are performing well. They have eliminated much of the sectarian issues they had in 2006. They continue to work that. If they see any type of sectarian behavior in the military, they're very quick to remove that. They watch that very carefully.
So we believe they continue to make progress. We think we need to be with them for a couple more years, as is outlined in the security agreement, and we think, as we continue to move forward, they will continue to improve, and they'll be able to do what we think is necessary.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And alleged corruption problems in the Iraqi military?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: There are -- corruption is endemic in Iraq, and it's probably the major issue that we face today, through all sectors, through all economic sectors, a little bit in the military. We have started -- they have had some programs to start to go after some of the corruption that is occurring in the military, but they still have some ways to go.
But what's been very good is the Council of Representatives have started to exercise their oversight, bring attention to this issue, which I believe will help to start to curb some of the corruption that is occurring in the government. But you're right. It is an endemic problem that we are concerned with.
Biden to focus on Iraq
JUDY WOODRUFF: General, very quickly, the New York Times editorialized yesterday that President Obama had not yet named a, quote, "marquee name" to oversee Iraq the way he has for Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Iran. We've also read that he is assigning the vice president to pay more attention to Iraq. What's your sense of who the lead person is here?
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Well, obviously, the ambassador is always the lead person for policy here inside of Iraq, Ambassador Hill.
But I think it's important that the president has decided to have the vice president oversee Iraq. I think that's important for the Iraqi government so they understand that Iraq is important to the president, that he is going to move forward with the strategic framework agreement that gets into the technical and cultural exchanges that I talked about earlier. And I think to solve some of these very difficult issues, such as the Kurd-Arab issue, I think it's important to have the vice president involved.
So I think this is an important move. I know Ambassador Hill supports it very strongly. And so I think it will help the Iraqis to understand what the president's views are, as well as understanding that the president is very concerned about Iraq by sending his vice president here.
JUDY WOODRUFF: General Ray Odierno, commander of all U.S. forces in Iraq, thank you very much for talking with us.
GEN. RAY ODIERNO: Thank you, Judy. I enjoyed it very much.