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Odierno: Iraqis Will Be Able to Handle Security

August 25, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Margaret Warner talks to Army Gen. Raymond Odierno about the state of security in Iraq as the U.S. scales back combat operations.
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MARGARET WARNER: Before the scale of today’s carnage was fully known, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Raymond Odierno, was greeted by an Iraqi honor guard at the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad.All the pomp and pageantry had been planned as a major celebration of his soon-to-end tenure in the country.

So, this is quite a — this is quite a display.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, commander, Multi-National Corps-Iraq:It is.It is.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you ever think you would see this day?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: No.But it’s a great — it’s a great honor for me to go through this.

MARGARET WARNER: I sat down with General Odierno after the ceremony.

In talking to Iraqis, official, but unofficial alike, we do sense a trepidation about the drawdown.It’s after years of telling U.S. they wanted to leave.How do you explain that?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I think it’s always the fear of the unknown and the fear of change.I think most Iraqis don’t understand the fact that the Iraqi security forces have been in control of security for really six to eight months.And they have been out there.And we have just been backed off, supporting them.So, the difference now is, we’re sending some of those people home.But, in reality, the Iraqis have been doing the majority of the security work for some time now.And so I feel very confident that they will be able to continue.There will be ups and downs.There will be bad days, but they will continue to provide adequate security.

MARGARET WARNER: I mean, the Iraqi people see the Iraqi security forces manning all the checkpoints in the city.I mean, they — they can see it with their own eyes.Do you think it reflects the trauma they have been through, the psychological toll that all this has taken?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: They have been through a lot.And it’s incredible what the Iraqi people have been through, a lot.

And I think, in some cases, they see the U.S. presence here as psychological support for their effort.And that’s why the 50,000 force is important.And that’s why it’s important for that force to stay through 2011, to provide the psychological support, as well as some of the physical support that we will continue to give the Iraqis, so they can continue to develop.And I think we can do that with the force that we will have here through the end of 2011.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, they still don’t have a government nearly six months after the election.How dangerous a situation is that to the stability that you and the Iraqi forces have worked so hard to bring in a military sense?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: The lack of a government obviously makes people nervous, and it makes — it provides some uncertainty.But what I have been proud of is the Iraqis security forces have remained neutral.They have done their job according to the Constitution.They have continued to try to execute security the best way they can.So, I think that’s a positive sign.But I will say we need to get a government for them.

It’s time for the Iraqis to step forward and do this, not only to reduce this ability for extremist elements to exploit this time where there’s no government, but so they can start on the new path, the new path of moving forward economically, moving forward politically, reestablishing relationships regionally.

They have got to get on with this.So it’s really important that they do get a new government established quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: But we have also heard from Iraqis here that they’re — they’re nervous that if the political leadership doesn’t come to an agreement, that the security forces may splinter, that politicians here may decide to use militias again.Now, one, do you think that is likely?Two, what does it tell you that people are afraid of that?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well they’re — they’re afraid of what it once was.And I would tell you, I think the probability of that is low, because of what I just said, the professionalism of the security forces.I also believe all of the different bloc leaders that I talk to, every one of them says they don’t militias.They want to make sure that we have a security force that is run by the government, and there’s no extra-constitutional forces out there.

And so I think they all have the right mind-set.They all realize that’s not what’s best for Iraq or the people of Iraq.So, that gives me confidence that that won’t happen.

MARGARET WARNER: You were asked, under what circumstances would the U.S. military ever come back?And your response was: “Only the complete failure of the Iraqi security forces, if you had some political divisions within the forces that caused them to fracture.”It sounds as if you’re saying, we do remain invested here, even in military sense.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: I mean, first of all, we think we have an opportunity here. Iraq — if you just look at where Iraq is geographically, it’s such a strategically important place for the whole Middle East, not just for Iraq.And then you look at the fabric of Iraq, you know, the Shia, the Sunni, the Kurds, Iranians’ influence, you know, relationships with Kuwait, relationship with Syria, relationship with Saudi Arabia, it’s such an important country in bringing overall stability to the region.

So, clearly, we want to have continued interests here.A re-intervention of U.S. forces would be a decision that would be made through our national security policy.And — and for me to say we might intervene here or we might intervene there is just inappropriate, because we don’t know.

MARGARET WARNER: But it is different.I mean, we would never even contemplate that.If you take two major U.S. allies in the region, Egypt or Saudi Arabia, the U.S. wouldn’t get engaged there.What is different about Iraq?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think we have some moral responsibilities because of the fact that we came in and overthrew the regime, and the fact that, when we overthrew the regime, we now are trying to redevelop Iraq and shape Iraq into a new nation.

And we have poured a lot of our energy into Iraq.We have poured our most valuable assets, our men and women, who have lost lives, who have been injured.We have put a lot of our treasury towards Iraq to improve it.So I think we have an invested interest here.And so what we have to do is just continue to follow through with that.

And, again, it’s not — that doesn’t mean necessarily we will have thousands of troops on the ground.It might mean we have to stay invested economically and politically and pay attention to and help them to continue to develop.And, frankly, that’s what I think the way ahead should be.

MARGARET WARNER: Last week, we went to Fallujah, scene of bloody battles between the U.S. and the insurgents, and saw the head of the Fallujah city council.

I said, “How do you feel about the U.S. drawdown?”

He said, “I’m very happy to see the Americans in uniforms leave, as long as Iranian intelligence leaves at the same time.”

What would you say to him?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, first, I would say that it’s important we respect Iraqi sovereignty.And we want them to start to deal with these problems.If they have foreign intel agencies coming into the country, it’s their responsibility to stand up, both politically, as well as with other tactics and techniques, to say, this is not acceptable to us.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that the Iranians are behind, any significant degree, this uptick in violence that we have seen in the last four or five weeks?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Yes, I would just say they continue to be involved in violence specifically directed at U.S. forces, in direct-fire attacks and things like that.They also — in some areas where there are some intra-Shia issues, I believe they are trying to influence — influencing some action by intimidation.So, they — they are behind this.They are training people.They are supplying people with weapons.

They continue to be involved in this.But — I would put a big but on that — but what we are seeing is the Iraqi people reject this, not only Sunnis, but Shia as well.They do not want Iran meddling inside of Iraq’s business.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they’re meddling in the formation of the government?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I mean, again, I think — I think they are holding meetings with Iraqi leaders.I think they are putting forth their opinion and telling them what they think they — the government should be and what it shouldn’t be.I think that…

MARGARET WARNER: Is that in any inappropriate way?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I don’t know. What I would say is I think it’s inappropriate that they continue to fund and they continue to train individuals who are conducting violence inside of Iraq.I think that’s wrong.I don’t think they should be doing that.

MARGARET WARNER: You’re a student of military history.You write and speak about it.And every next generation of military leaders is always, of course, shaped by the war they have just been through.

How do you think this conflict will shape the way the U.S. military approaches future conflicts?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: I think what’s happened is, we have learned that, in this very complex world we now live in, that military operations have become extremely more complex.And it’s because of the environment.And you have to — you can’t just look at who’s the enemy and say, that’s what we have to be concerned about.As a military leader now in developing any kind of an operation on foreign soil, you have to consider many other things.

You have to consider the social economic issues.You have to — you have to understand the cultural issues, because those all play a role in the fabric of security.We don’t know if we will ever have another major military campaign anywhere.It might be small operations, where we’re trying to influence and help others to reestablish democracy or to reestablish stability.

How we do that is very different today than what it was.So, we need leaders who can think broadly about these issues.You can’t just think about military combat operations anymore.

MARGARET WARNER: So, finally, you have been here at least five — nearly five of the last seven-and-a-half years, you personally.How has it changed you?

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO: Well, it’s broadened my horizons tremendously.I mean, someone who had — you know, had spent maybe a month total in the Middle East, total time over my previous 27 years in the military, and now will have spent almost five years here, learning about the culture, learning about this part of the world, learning about American relationships with these countries and — and how — what we can do in the future to work those.

It’s changed me because of what I have seen, our young men and women, their sacrifices.I have a lot of faith in this generation of young men and women, for what they have done, what they volunteer to do, their — their mental and physical toughness, their love of their country, their love of their military, their love of their unit. And that will forever remain with me.And then, finally, the relationships I have made here in Iraq and the people of Iraq, I will never forget that.

MARGARET WARNER: After our interview ended, General Odierno went into a closed-door meeting with the Iraqi defense minister.He emerged after 20 minutes and headed to the American Embassy nearby.

On the ride to the embassy, Odierno informed me there had been six or seven attacks, with an undetermined number of casualties.The picture wasn’t entirely clear yet, but he was convinced he knew why it was happening.This is all about the insurgents sending a message to the U.S. and about the U.S., he said:You’re leaving.You’re saying everything’s fine.Well, it’s not fine.

Secondly, he said, the insurgents are sending a message to Prime Minister Maliki and the Iraqi people:Maliki’s telling you he’s the man who can keep you safe.Well, he can’t.And, by the way, he and the other political leaders haven’t even been able to form a government.

Finally, he told me that, in the private meeting, the Iraqis had expressed deep concern about the morning’s attacks.

“I told them,” he said, “these things will happen, but you have to look at the broad trends.You have to see them in the long-term.”

The U.S. is clearly hoping that days like today remain the exception, and don’t once again become the rule.

JIM LEHRER: Next Tuesday, President Obama will mark the end of the U.S. combat mission with a speech to the nation.We will have live coverage of his Oval Office address at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time.