Beyond Baghdad [home]
photo of odiernohomethe long roadiraqis and americansinterviews
Interviews: maj. gen. raymond odierno

Odierno is the commander of the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, headquartered outside Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, where the former dictator was captured by 4th Infantry Division troops in December. Tikrit, located in the so-called Sunni Triangle north of Baghdad, is a place where Sunni Arabs and their tribal society have long dominated and where loyalty to Saddam and the former Baathist regime still runs strong.

Here, Odierno talks about the prospects of winning the loyalty of people in the Sunni Triangle, and the role of reconstruction -- and the security and funding necessary for reconstruction projects -- in that process. He also addresses the challenges posed by tensions along the "ethnic fault line" between Kurds, Sunnis, Shiites, and other groups. "In Kirkuk," he says, "you have Shia and Sunni Arabs, you have Kurds, you have Turkomen. That's a microcosm of the entire country. If we can prove a point in Kirkuk and make that work, you can make the whole country work." This interview was conducted by FRONTLINE producer Martin Smith on Nov. 30, 2003.

They expect the United States to come in, and [we] would throw billions of dollars, and in six months this country would be like Germany is today. It's an unrealistic expectation.

Who has the power in a tribal society? That's what you're facing, that's what you're dealing with.

I think that's in part what we're dealing with. In a tribal society, it's family-oriented; it's oriented over time. You have leadership that has developed family ties through a lot of years. Then they develop associations based on geographic and family ties. Then they work together for years and years and years to both promote family orientation, jobs, health and welfare throughout this tribe. It's a society that's formed within each one of the tribes.

Then you have several sub-tribes that come out of the tribal system. It's a very complicated system. It's something you have to do a lot of study on to really truly understand what it means.

What sort of challenges does that put before you?

It's first understanding, as you said, a tribal society. It's something that's not natural to Western culture. So you have to first really understand and try to study it. Even after you do that, it's hard to really understand the idiosyncrasies of it. How much power do the tribal leaders really have? What are the sub-clans of these tribes? How do they operate? How much of the tribe does he actually control?

That's something we work with every day. We engage regularly with tribal leaders. We engage regularly with sub-tribal leaders. How much they deliver is interesting, because in some cases, they can, in some cases they can't. I think it depends on the sub-tribes.

I think it also depends that they always hedge their bets. They've been in this society for a very long time, and they understand -- they're survivors. They survive by watching what's going on around them and trying to determine who to support, when to support them, and how much I will support them as they look to the future. So they always are very careful on how much they will support you.

When you meet with them, they will pledge very clearly they support you 100 percent. I think they mean that they want to try to support that. They want to try to support what's best for their tribe members, what's best for their family. They truly mean that. But that then varies based on their assessment from day to day, week to week, month to month.

If you know that some of the guys are causing you trouble, in a certain tribe, you go to the tribal sheikh?


What can he do for you?

Well, first off -- let me give you an example. What we've done is we've gone to the tribal sheikhs to recruit. One of the things they've come to us and said is, "We need to put our men to work. They need to support their families, and we need to get them to work. If you don't get them to work, they're susceptible to being recruited by the Fedayeen to operate against you, just because they need the money."

So we've gone to them for the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, for the police. We go to the tribe leaders and we say, "Give us your men who are interested in doing this. We want them to be trustworthy and they want to be supportive to us." We hold them somewhat accountable for that.

So what we'll do is, if we find one that in fact turns out not to be trustworthy, we bring them back to the tribe leader and we say, "You told us this individual would be a good recruit, and he's turned out not to be, for these reasons." Or they'll say, "We have no one in our tribe that's conducting operations against coalition forces." Then we'll capture some of them that have bombmaking materials and other things. We'll bring them back. After he's arrested, we'll bring pictures and show him the proof and say, "OK, this guy was involved, and this is what he did." What they'll say is, "Well, he got off track, we don't support that. ... And I didn't know about it."

I think they'll take some action, though, within their tribe, because it becomes an honor thing with them. You've got to be careful how you do it, because if you dishonor them, then that does in fact have an effect on them.

So it's a very fine line. All our commanders work that very closely. I've found the best relationships are battalion commanders, company commanders on the ground, working every single day with these tribal leaders. ...

Now a lot of people comment, saying, "How are we going to get a democracy up on its feet in a country that has no such tradition?" It seems to me that when you describe tribal society, it's not exactly an easy fit for a democracy.

Right, I agree. It's going to take hard work. First you've got to teach them what democracy means.

But they don't want that. I mean, they've got a tribal system that has worked for them for hundreds of years.

It has worked to an extent. Remember, they've been in a tribal system, but they've also been under a dictatorship. I think that has not been that great of a life for them, and they're all looking for a better life. So as we continue to educate them and they understand what's available to them, I think democracy can work.

I will say, though, tribal leaders might not necessarily benefit from a democracy. In fact, they could lose power and influence based on democratic values. So we've got to move through this understanding that, and move through this with education and a pace where they will accept that. We've got to understand that as we continue to build a new government, and it's going to take some time. ...

It won't be easy. But I think it can be done. You've got to do it over time -- we can't just say we're going to have a democracy next month. I mean, you can't do that. You've got to work it through time. We have to figure out, where does the tribal influence play in a democracy? It could be like a political party. Maybe you have tribal councils that are developed. That becomes a political party that then can participate in a democracy, for example. So I think those are the kind of things we have to look at and see how it'll work. They have to figure out some of this for themselves. I mean, we can't tell them; they've got to figure it out for themselves. That's why it's going to take some time.

They do often seem to me like they're waiting for you to tell them what to do, and waiting for you to pick up the garbage and turn on the lights and do just about every other civic function that they can imagine.

Based on the society they've just lived in -- under what I would call a Stalinist government -- the government supposedly did everything for you. They paid you. Everybody worked for the government in some way. Sometimes they didn't even work to get paid, but they got paid because they're members of the Baath Party. I think they were used to it.

But what I would say is the Iraqis are very industrious people. They are hard workers. The farmers work extremely hard. There are a lot of small businesses that are popping up. They do have entrepreneurship. So I think they have the right qualities, and over time, that will improve. ...

When we first started, they had to be told to do everything. They wouldn't do anything unless Baghdad said. Even over the six, seven months since that has occurred, you've seen a change in how they do things. It's not a full change, and it's going to take time. I mean, you're not going to change 35 years of Stalinist suppression in seven months. It's going to take some time to change those things. ...

Our program is called "Beyond Baghdad," and we're looking at the kinds of things that present challenges that are beyond what gets a lot of press coverage. There's been a lot about the coalition versus the Sunnis in the Sunni Triangle. That story's been well told -- "us against them." But we're looking at some of these other issues, such as the difficulty faced by melding a tribal society with democracy. That's one. Another is the ethnic tension you've got in Kirkuk. Everybody says if the Americans leave, there'll be civil war immediately. Everybody in Kirkuk says that.

Yes. I'm not willing to jump into that. But there's hundreds of years of ethnic issues up in what I call -- it's more than Kirkuk -- I call it the ethnic fault line, which goes along the eastern part of Iraq.

Kirkuk happens to be about the center of it. If you talk to them, the Kurds will claim Kirkuk as a potential capital for them. The [Turkomen] claim it as a capital, and of course the Arabs think it's an important city for them. So there is a natural tension. What's interesting, though, when you really get down to it, [Turkomen] and Kurds and Arabs have been living together fairly peacefully there for a fairly long time. The political parties involved with each one of those ethnic groups tend to cause some stress, because they want to take it over, have control over it.

So Kirkuk is a very important city. I think it's a microcosm of all of Iraq, and I think [we should deal with it] with such sensitivity. Everybody in Kirkuk is a victim.

The Arabs are victims. You have Shia Arabs, under Arabization under Saddam Hussein, who were forcibly moved up there. ... You have Kurds who were displaced by these Arabs that were moved up there by Saddam Hussein. Kurds have been displaced from Kirkuk for hundreds of years. ... You have the Turkomen that were forced out of some of their homes over time.

So they all have a legitimate beef about the past. ... We are going to have to develop a policy that helps us settle these issues, and we've got to do it peacefully. We've continued to preach that you must be patient, so we can develop a program and a policy that will help us deal with this ethnic issue. ...

In relation to that, I think one of the things we're going to have to do is really invest into Kirkuk, because Kirkuk has everything. It has oil, it has agriculture, it has water, yet it's probably one of the poorest cities in all of Iraq, because, again, it was punished, and everybody was a victim over the years.

So by putting some money in there, building the economy, I think that will also help the ethnic diversity. It'll help solve some of the problems we have when you can make everyone a part of the solution. That's where we need to move in the future. ...

You say it's a microcosm. How do you mean that?

I mean it's a microcosm; that we must learn within Iraq, they must learn -- all the ethnic groups have to learn to work together. In Kirkuk, you have Shia and Sunni Arabs, you have Kurds, you have Turkomen. That's a microcosm of the entire country. If we can prove a point in Kirkuk and make that work, you can make the whole country work.

So I think we can use that as an example, and we can use it because of the natural resources that are available up there. We should take advantage of that.

We've listened to some Kurdish leaders there, and one Kurdish party is trying to be more Kurdish than the next Kurdish party. They're vying against one another for power. But they are intransigent on the issue of the Arabs having to move out, the ones that were moved in by Saddam.

Yes, well, I think we have to deal with that issue. The forcible expulsion of Kurds has to be dealt with. ...

But, again, it wasn't the people themselves who did it. It was the regime who did it, and that's what we have to remember. It was the regime who forced that to happen, not necessarily the people. ... They were given money and told to move up there. So you've got to understand that. It was not the Arab individuals forcing themselves in. ... So what we have to do is work [for a] solution. But it doesn't mean they move out of the area. It doesn't mean they can't live there and coexist there. They have to be able to coexist. That's what we have to work towards.

Do we have a solution?

Well, no. We don't. ... We've got to decide what our policy is going to be up there, and we haven't done that.

Why not?

First, I think we want Iraqis to solve that problem. So I think one of the solutions is, let's wait until we get an interim government established, and let the Iraqis try to solve this problem with some advisement from the U.S. I think that's our initial thought. I'm hoping we can wait that long.

The challenges seem immense. Here you've got [Kurdish leaders Jalal] Talabani and [Massoud] Barzani, both sitting on the Governing Council, both vying for control over Kurdistan. Can you talk a little bit about the rift between those?

First, they have formed a relationship that has, for the last several years, maybe the last year or so --

Since they went to war together?

Yes. They have forged a relationship where they are, in fact, in some ways working together, and they have been, since we've come in the country. They really have somewhat been united and working together. So that is helpful. They need to continue to do that, in my opinion. If they don't, then if you have a fracture within the Kurdish parties, that could hurt the Kurds in getting their rightful place -- whatever that happens to be -- in the future Iraq.

I think we need to be careful about a "Kurdistan." I mean, this is Iraq. We want it to be a multiethnic Iraq. All along, American policy has been, "We don't establish a Kurdistan."

So we have to watch that very carefully. There can't be a part of Iraq that's just for Kurds. There can't be a part of Iraq that's just for Arabs. Again, I go back to why Kirkuk is such an important city. I think we've got to prove that Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomen -- and Syrians, which I left out before -- can live there together.

One of the other problems you face is that you're trying to push forward with civil affairs in some areas that are very dangerous, where NGOs won't go, where the U.N. won't go, where USAID won't go. How do you convince the people who are out here saying, "It won't be secure here until you fix it up," and "You can't fix it up until it's secure?"

Yes, it is a chicken-and-egg argument. ... When I talk security, there's four pieces to security: There's a military piece that's clearly ours. That means we have to defeat the former regime loyalists. We have to develop a police force, a civil defense corps, and an army that can help protect this and make it a safe place. That's one piece of it.

But what also contributes to a safe place is infrastructure improvement. So you've got to improve the infrastructure. You've got to make sure they have basic services, which I think we've done. The services now are probably better than they have been before the war, and they continue to get better.

You've got to have governance. That's the third piece. You've got to have local leaders, you've got to have provincial leaders, you've got to have a rule of law. You've got to have a judiciary set up. That's the third piece.

The fourth is an economic development plan, which is long term. ... All of that equates to security. So what's frustrating is when you say, "You've got to have military security first." That is not the only solution. It's a combination of all four of those things that I just talked about. So we have to work together to make this happen.

We have done 1,500 projects in my area of operation, and as far as I know, no one has been injured or killed doing these 1,500 projects that we funded under our commanders' programs. And we let out the contractors. So we have to convince NGOs to come in here. "We will help you with your protection, and then you can do the same thing."

Now what's happening is, I believe that the former regime loyalists who are not having success, for the most part, attacking coalition forces are now specifically targeting foreigners -- whether it be Korean, Japanese, Spanish -- because they know that if they get in here and these IGOs, NGOs get established, that they will never be able to recover.

And they're attacking the Iraqi police?

They're attacking the Iraqi police and the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps. They're doing that because they want to discourage people from moving along.

So it's going to take some brave people to come in here, working with us. Non-governmental organizations and international organizations don't necessarily always like to work with the American military, because they like their independence, and I understand that. But I think there's going to be a time here, at least in the beginning, where they have to trust us a bit to provide some security so they can get established and do their jobs. Then, as it gets better, they can then become more independent. ...

I talked to a group of men in Thuluya. They told me there were no projects going on. ... What should I believe?

Yes, well, the bottom line is I could give you a list of about 40 projects that have been done in Thuluya.

So why this whining -- or whatever you want to call it -- or at least their honest perception that there's nothing going on?

I would say first, can we do more? Absolutely. Is there more that has to be done? Yes. But the interesting piece about this is we have to do this together. It's not just the American force or coalition forces doing this. They've got to help us do this. Again, it goes back to the Stalinist society, where government does everything for you. We've got to change the mindset where we just don't do everything for you; it's us working together doing these things together, and you have to help us do this. You have to help us provide security so we can do more projects in Thuluya. We still have some attacks.

They have gone down in Thuluya, but we still have a few attacks in Thuluya. So they need to help us with that. They need to help us establish a city council, which we've done. They have to help us establish a government, which we've done. But they've got to take charge. So that's what we have to do over time. They've got to get more participatory, so it's a two-way street. We will continue to invest down there. We will continue to invest across the whole AOR. But it's not a panacea where you just get everything you want right away. ...

See, I think some of the problem is they expect the United States to come in, and they would throw billions of dollars, and in six months this country would be like Germany is today. It's an unrealistic expectation.

Well, we did put a man on the moon.

Yes, but it's an unrealistic-- I mean, look how long it took us to rebuild Germany. It was not six months.

In Baquba, I was told that after those bombings on the two police stations there, and then Bani Saad, that there were a number of 40 to 50 policemen who didn't show up for work, left work. ...

There was some number who did. But there was also, I would tell you, hundreds that did come to work. So I would emphasize the fact that we had hundreds that did come to work, and in fact have showed more resolve.

The other point I would make is we've gotten very good feedback that they are even more hardened towards the [Fedayeen] after these attacks, or whoever conducted these attacks. ...

In the one bombing in Baquba, there was an Iraqi policeman -- I don't know his name, and I wish I did. He was on top of the roof, manning a position, and he fired on the vehicle as it came in. Killed the individual, and that's when the vehicle was destroyed. Unfortunately, [the policeman] was killed. But he was a hero. He did what he was supposed to do. He was there, doing his job, standing up for his country.

We have a lot of Iraqis doing that. So we tend to emphasize the 30 or 40 who quit. We don't emphasize the thousands. We have 8,000 policemen who are currently working in our AOR. So I like to talk about the 7,960 who are still working, who are still putting their lives on the line, knowing they are at risk, and they are being threatened by the FRL, but are willing to come to work every day ...

Across the country, the U.S. Army was running out of money, CERP funds, by the beginning of October?


Where do you stand?

Well, we lost momentum. ...

It seems incredibly--

Well, it has to do with ... we were using captured Iraqi funds. That's what we were using to fund all these projects. We had no appropriated funds to do that. The supplemental [appropriation passed by Congress] has done that. We will get specific CERP funds, I believe somewhere around -- for the country -- about $140 million out of the supplemental [will] be directly responsible for CERP funds for the commanders to use. It's just going to take some time. I think it'll be the end of December, beginning of January, before we get that money and are able, then, to start again and continue these projects.

Because we were just beginning to see people reacting to the successes we were having with the water treatment projects, with the school projects, with the sewage projects, with the police buildings and the courthouses being developed. We were really starting to see some positive response to all of that.

You had momentum.

We had momentum, and so we've somewhat lost that a little bit. We can regain it--

It's frustrating.

But it's frustrating.

Why did nobody see that coming?

I'm not sure. We didn't see it coming. We thought we were going to have continued funds, and we didn't realize we were running out of funds. I can't answer. I really cannot answer. I don't know the answer to that question. ... So, we just gotta, its done. Its water under the bridge. We gotta move forward. I think thats my comment on that. ...

The Americans -- because it's what we have -- depend on money to buy information, to buy cooperation, to do reconstruction. But are we getting Iraqis to really share our vision for what we think Iraq can be?

I think we are. I think through the engagement with the leadership that we initially put into place, and constantly talking, I think they want to -- Every Iraqi wants to move forward, because they think they can get a better life.

I think the majority, the large majority, of Iraqis see that, and want us to move forward and do that. I think we confuse that sometimes with the fact that being a Middle Eastern country, they're not crazy about having Western coalition forces in the country.

But what they want us to do is they want us to come here and fix them, get them on the right path, far enough along where nobody can reverse that path, and then leave. That's what we want, too. ... It's through trust, it's through understanding, that we are going to stay here for a period of time, and that we're going to follow through on this and not leave them before the job's finished.

The number one issue that everybody tells me is that we need you here until the job is finished. So I think there's always a doubt in their mind whether we're going to hang in here until they know that they have an established government, established security, established infrastructure, that they can now carry forward on their own -- which they definitely want to do.

Some of the policemen I talked to told me they were frightened about the prospect of America leaving.

Yes, and I think that's why our message has been consistent that we are staying, and the military, there's no sign of us leaving. The next rotation's been identified; we'll be in here. There's talk -- everybody throws a number out -- I don't think anybody knows how long it's going to be here yet, because it's conditions-based. Until we get to that point, we will make the decision, then, to pull out. But we're behind it, and I think it's everybody. I think all politicians understand that we've got to stick to this. This has implications--

Ahmad Chalabi told me he thought we should get out. I said to him, "You don't have any security."

I'm not familiar with his beliefs. But, again, I would put that he wants us to get out at the right time.

He's got a different time schedule maybe than we do. You decided to take this al-Awja neighborhood [outside Tikrit, where Saddam grew up] and throw barbed wire up around it. Why, and how effective is that? Was that your decision?

It was. It was recommended to me, and I gave the approval to do that. The reason we did that was twofold. One was, first, we had done so many raids in that specific town. We knew that everybody in that town is related to the old regime in some way -- could be just family members -- but they are related. So what we decided to do was, first we wanted to make sure we understood who was in that town, and we wanted to make sure that we were able to understand what they're doing.

Since we've done that, we've had a bit of calm in this area. The number of incidents is significantly down, and, oh, by the way, they are cooperating a bit more than they were before. So I feel very comfortable with that decision, and we've gotten positive feedback from the rest of Tikrit.

They have to apply to get out of there?

No, no, no, no. All they do is, they have an identification card, and they're registered. There might be a few people who, because of their past actions, might not be able to leave. But the large majority can come and go as they please.

But it keeps them from recruiting others to come in and--

Right, and we know their movement. We know when they're leaving, we know when they're coming back. It keeps them from being active, and if they are, it's very easy for us to know that they are. ...

We've come into this country. We're facing challenges that we didn't expect. That shouldn't be anything new to a military guy.


That happens, I understand that. But as honestly as you can give me, what is your take on the future for this place?

First, I think the potential is incredible in this country.

Just on paper, I understand that. The political challenges are huge.

Yes, I think the potential is there. It's going to take time. Where have we come? In seven months, we've removed a regime. I tell everyone, although we have resistance -- and although I'm not happy that we're taking casualties -- the status quo is a loss for the enemy, because every day we move forward is another day Saddam's not in power. It's another day that the infrastructure gets better. It's another day that the new government is in place. It's another day that they see economic development occurring. It's another day that the Iraqi police and the Iraq Civil Defense Corps are taking better control and becoming better trained.

As these things continue to occur, they will gain confidence in themselves. They will gain confidence in the establishment of a new government. I'd like to see it go faster, and I think we can make it go faster. We can do that by maybe eliminating a little bit more of this threat. I think you've seen a change in the threat, that they're much more stand-off now in their attacks. Basically their attacks are down to IEDs [improvised explosive devices], some mortar and rocket attacks, that are for the most part very, very ineffective.

They're now attacking either Iraqis or they're attacking NGOs -- trying to discourage them. In my mind, that means they've been unsuccessful in attacking the coalition forces, and now they're trying to go about it another way.

So it's another phase. We'll work our way through that.

But more U.S. soldiers died in the last month than ... died in any other month since the war.

Yes, but there were some very specific accidents that occurred.

You mean large-scale accidents like [the two helicopters] in Mosul?

Large-scale accidents. That's right. ... There was a large-scale accident in Mosul. There was a Chinook helicopter shot done in Falluja. ... Yes, they did some attacks on aircraft. ... Yes, there's some very high-impact effective attacks that occurred. Maybe some of them were lucky. Hitting an aircraft with an RPG is -- There's a lot of things that have to happen for that to happen correctly.

So, yes, they've had some things that have occurred this month. But I think we've got to look at that in such a way that -- That doesn't mean the resistance is any more effective.

That's the perception back home.

Oh, I know it is. I know it is. ...

[That] maybe the resistance can really cripple this effort and--

But again, people don't understand. See, here's the problem. The bottom line is, everybody who comes over here, they can't believe what it's like here, because they think it's absolutely chaos based on reports they're getting at home. ... Then you come back here, and when people are on the ground, they realize it's not chaos. It's not the best place in the world, but it's not chaos. ...

If you go downtown Kirkuk, there's hundreds of thousands of people in there going to the markets. If you go down to Tikrit, it's 400 percent better now -- the markets -- than they were six months ago. There's many more businesses. In Thuluya, eight car dealerships have opened up since we went in there and did that operation.

So they can tell you all they want about things not moving forward. ... Things are moving forward, and things are much better than it appears. ...


home + introduction + a long road + map: peoples and politics + iraqis and americans
interviews + links & readings 
tapes & transcripts + press reaction + producer's chat + credits + privacy policy
FRONTLINE + wgbh + pbsi

posted february 12, 2004

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation