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Gen. Odierno: ‘People of Iraq Have Embraced Democracy’

March 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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As Iraq counts the ballots from Sunday's parliamentary election, Jim Lehrer talks to Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, about how a new government may impact the security situation and the drawdown of U.S. troops.
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JIM LEHRER: And now: Two days after Iraq’s parliamentary elections, our newsmaker interview with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Ray Odierno. I talked with him earlier today from Baghdad.

General, welcome.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq: How are you, Jim?

JIM LEHRER: Just fine, sir. Thank you.

How confident are you that the political leaders of Iraq can now peacefully form a new government?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, what I’m confident about is, they know that they’re going to have to form a government using several different coalitions, because not one coalition will have a majority.

And, so, they know that they’re going to have to work together to build this coalition. They know that. And I think they will work towards that over time.

JIM LEHRER: How long do you think it will take, sir?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, it’s unclear. I think it depends on the final results. If they are close, it will probably take a little bit longer. If someone has a bigger lead, it might happen a little bit quicker. But I believe we’re talking about a couple of months.

JIM LEHRER: A couple of months?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: That’s correct, sir.

JIM LEHRER: There’s been the suggestion that the people of Iraq are really getting the hang of democracy. In other words, the ordinary folks have gotten the hang of democracy, but maybe some of the leaders are not quite there yet, and particularly when it comes to compromise.

What’s your reading of that situation?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I think you’re absolutely right, that the people of Iraq have embraced democracy. They proved it again on Saturday as they came out to vote. Twelve million Iraqis came out to vote. So, they clearly want to have a say in their country’s future.

I believe the politicians are learning about democracy. They’re learning about how a minority works with a majority government. They have to learn how you do work through tough issues. We saw them make improvements over the last year. And I expect they will continue to improve. But they’re learning about this new process.

JIM LEHRER: What is your level of concern about the possibility of a power vacuum setting in, if it takes too long to form a government and violence could erupt again?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, clearly, we understand that this is a transition time. And transitions are always a time of risk.

But we have worked very hard with the government of Iraq during this caretaker government to try to ensure that security will remain. We have worked very close relationships with all the security elements, the minister of defense, the minister of interior, in order to ensure that safeguards are in place in order to sustain security. And I believe we will be able to do that through this critical period.

JIM LEHRER: How would you describe your own relationship between you and your immediate aides and fellow officers in the U.S. military and the civilian leadership, as well as the military leadership of Iraq?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Over the last several years, we have built extremely strong partnerships with many Iraqis. And we have done that through very difficult times, during the surge of forces in 2006 and ’07, and now as we have implemented the security agreement in 2009.

We have built strong partnerships. We have built trusts with all the senior leaders, military and civilian across all parties. We engage with them on a regular basis. And we work very hard to continue to develop those relationships as we turn more and more responsibility over to them over time.

JIM LEHRER: Are they 50-50 partnerships, or is it now growing, where the Iraqis have more control than — than the U.S. did? Or how could you — how would you describe that?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, what I would say is, obviously, in 2006, ’07, and ’08, the United States clearly had a much larger role, when we were under the U.N. Security Council resolution.

In December 2008, when we signed the security bilateral agreement with the government of Iraq, we recognized Iraq’s sovereignty. So, clearly, they became responsible for their own decisions, and we are a partner with them in helping them to move forward.

So, clearly, they make the decisions. We support them. We try to help them in order to provide security throughout Iraq, in order for them to continue to build their political base, their economic base, and to develop the democratic system. And, so, they clearly have more of a say than we do now.

That’s the way it should be, and that’s the way we want it to be. And that’s how they will develop their capacity.

JIM LEHRER: So, you don’t have a veto power?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: No, we do not have a veto. They clearly make their own decisions. We — we — again, we have discussions about issues. We talk about these issues. And we give them our opinions, but, ultimately, they make the decision about their government.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the — the timeline for the troop withdrawals, for the U.S. troop withdrawals, are they on track as a result of the elections?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: I believe so. I was very pleased with the elections. I thought the Iraqi security forces did a tremendous job. They planned and executed the security plan all by themselves.

Although there was some violence, most of it was low-level violence. We had no suicide bombs, no suicide vests. I thought, for the most part, it went very well. Unfortunately, there were some buildings that were destroyed that killed some Iraqis. But, for the most part, security was very good.

All of the polling stations remained open during the entire election. And the people felt comfortable enough to go out. And 60, 62 percent of the people voted. So, I think that’s a good sign. So, based on that, I believe we’re on track. I believe we will get to 50,000 by the 1st of September.

Only a catastrophic event would keep us from doing that now.

JIM LEHRER: Define a catastrophic event.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, it’s unknown. It would be something that would maybe turn the government or create some significant amount of violence.

But I don’t know. It’s very difficult to determine, because we would have to just work our way through it, do an assessment. And then we would — in Washington, we would make an assessment, give our recommendation to Washington, and have them make a decision.

But I really don’t see anything like that on the horizon right now.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, what do the 100,000 or so troops there that are remaining right now until September, what are they doing?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, we have 96,000 on the ground today.

They remain very busy. They are out every single day, partnering, training, and working with their Iraqi counterparts. We do it across the country, from Basra to Mosul, from Anbar to Diyala Province. They continue to work and do partnered operations across Iraq.

We are outside of the cities now. Iraqis control all security inside of the cities. We’re — we’re attempting to continue to build their capacity. So, it’s still very busy. We will start to draw down here over the next several months. And — and, when we get down to 50,000, we will have a change of mission. We will end combat operations.

We will move to a more training-and-advise mission. And we will still conduct some partnered counterterrorism operations as we move forward.

JIM LEHRER: What kind of combat operations are U.S. troops involved in now?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: In reality, Jim, very few. I would argue that, really, we’re more into stability operations now.

We support Iraqi operations, but almost every — every operation is — is — Iraqis are involved in. Every operation is led by Iraqis. We provide support and we advise them during operations. So, I would argue, in reality, we have really moved very close to where we think we will be on the 1st of September already.

JIM LEHRER: General, just — you have been at this a while. You have been in Iraq a while. And does the progress and particularly the time it’s taken to get where you are now, to get where Iraq is right now, is this about what you expected? Are you surprised that it’s gone so slowly or gone so quickly? What’s your level of — your own expectations, have they been met?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I would say, you know, depending on when you ask me that question, I would probably give you a different answer.

But, having been here since now 2006, almost continuously, back in 2006, if you asked me that question, I would not have thought we would have gotten here as quickly as we have. That was at the height of sectarian violence, moving towards civil war. And things were fairly dark here in Iraq.

And if you told me, just three years later, three short years later, we would be where we are today, I would have thought that would be a very optimistic viewpoint. So, I think we have made some really good progress here in the last three years. Security is better. There’s still violence here. There are still groups that are attempting to try to influence the political decisions through violence, but they’re much more — they’re much less than they ever were.

So, I think we’re better off. We still have room to grow and develop in military — in — excuse me — in economic and diplomatic areas, but we have seen movement here in Iraq over the last year. We hope, with the new council of representatives, that will continue to move forward.

JIM LEHRER: And I take it you’re comfortable with the — the role the U.S. has played and the way it’s played it since 2006?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I think we have — we have — we have done a fairly good job. You can always do better, obviously.

But I think I have been very pleased with the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines here, what they have done in order to reduce violence, how we have been able to partner with the Iraqi security forces.

And I think the real surprise has been the exponential growth and improvement in the Iraqi security forces over this time. And I think I have been very pleased with that. And I now it’s now set us up to turn more responsibility over to them in the coming — in the coming year or so.

JIM LEHRER: Was there a secret — when you look back on it now, was there a secret or any particular approach to the training that has made this possible, for the United States military to transfer their knowledge in a way that you’re now comfortable with the — with many elements, or most elements, of the Iraqi security force?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: The bottom line is, when we surged forces in here, it not only gave us the opportunity to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries and protect the population. What it did is, it gave us more troops to partner with the Iraqi security forces.

And what I mean by partner is, they did everything together every day. And them being with us, them working with us, I think, exponentially improved their capabilities much quicker. They have a natural — in Iraq, they have a natural bent towards their army and towards serving in their army.

And they learned. They wanted to learned, and they learned very quickly through these partnerships that we developed at the lowest level up to the highest levels. And I think that’s what has served us well here.

JIM LEHRER: General, finally, let me ask you this. Have you seen the movie “The Hurt Locker,” the one that won the Academy Award the other night as the best movie of the year?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: They actually sent me a copy of it about a year — about six or eight months ago. And I have had a chance to look at it.

I think what I like about it is it shows, first, the camaraderie that is required here, the tension, the — the risk that’s involved in some of the jobs that we do here.

I’m sure many people would say it could be a bit more accurate in some areas. But I — I believe it’s a good representation of the sacrifice, dedication that it takes here in order to combat such a very difficult mission of terrorism and fighting a war on terrorism.

JIM LEHRER: In general — in general, General…

JIM LEHRER: … are you — are you pleased with the way the — the fighting at the boots level has been portrayed to the American public through movies and other media?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Not really.

I think people don’t understand how complex the environment has been here over the last several years. I don’t think they understand what it takes for these young men and women to operate in this environment. They have done extremely well balancing nonviolence and violence, having to be able to determine who is bad and who is good, who is trying to kill you, who is not.

It’s a very complex environment. And they have been able to maneuver through this with expert — with expert — with expertise. And I think, sometimes, people don’t understand how difficult that is, and how dangerous it is, and how brave these young men and women are operating in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: General Odierno, thank you, sir.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Thank you, Jim. It’s been a pleasure being with you tonight.