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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: A CHANGE AT THE TOP

New general takes the U.S. reins in Iraq

December 15, 2006|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writers

CAMP VICTORY, IRAQ — Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno assumed command of U.S. troops at a ceremony in the capital on Thursday, vowing to pursue more than just combat to resolve the conflict in Iraq.

"This is not just a military solution only," he said to the crowd assembled outside one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces near the U.S. military headquarters. "It is a combination of diplomatic, economic and military programs."

But those who know Odierno say the hard-charging general who plotted Hussein's capture as well as anti-insurgency operations may put more effort toward securing, rather than rebuilding, Iraq when he becomes the No. 2 U.S. commander here.

Odierno gained a reputation as an aggressive commander while leading the 4th Infantry Division in Sunni Arab-dominated parts of the country in 2003 and '04. Some military analysts have argued that the region's continued unrest can be traced to his heavy-handed methods.

Odierno's predecessor, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, was seen as a champion of more comprehensive strategies aimed at winning over local populations, including large-scale public works programs and restrained firepower in the face of sectarian warfare.

Despite sporadic violent uprisings against his forces, Chiarelli, a former West Point professor, was able to stabilize the volatile Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad by putting locals to work on a large sewage system and assigning some of his top soldiers to work with nascent Iraqi security forces.

Chiarelli also is popular in Washington, where he is in contention to replace his commander, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who may leave before summer.

At Thursday's ceremony, Casey praised Chiarelli's approach to securing Iraq.

"I will always remember your personal passion for building a better life for the Iraqi people," Casey told the crowd, which included U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and several regional U.S. military commanders.

Chiarelli spoke of working side by side with Iraqis in the last year to rebuild the country, in a speech sprinkled with quotes from President Theodore Roosevelt and economist John Stuart Mill.

Odierno sat nearby, surveying the crowd of about 300 soldiers, sailors and Marines. He cut an imposing figure, still looking like the tight end he was at West Point: head shaved, jaw squared, brown eyes piercing. Raised by a World War II Army sergeant, Odierno saw his son enter the military and lose an arm after being wounded by insurgents in Baghdad.

When Odierno spoke, he paraphrased Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the hawkish World War II commander who advocated the use of nuclear weapons against the Chinese during the Korean War: "No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he is vigilant in their protections."

People close to Odierno say his characterization as an overly aggressive commander with a style antithetical to Chiarelli's is unwarranted. They say he has become more attuned to the importance of "soft" power during his last two years as an assistant to Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Chiarelli said Thursday that he believed Odierno shared his belief that it would take more than military force to bring peace to Iraq. Odierno suggested political solutions to the latest sectarian conflicts, such as setting a date for provincial elections and integrating sectarian militias into the army.

But he was at his most passionate when talking about counterinsurgency.

"We are going to go after any -- any -- individual who attacks the government, who attacks the security forces and who attacks coalition forces, no matter who they are and no matter who they are associated with," he said.

Odierno said his first task would be developing Iraqi security forces. His second: supporting Iraqi security forces "to defeat those extremists who do not want to conform to Iraq."

Odierno added that his style hadn't changed much since his days in the northern Iraqi city of Tikrit. "I'm aggressive in whatever I do," he said. "I'm an aggressive personality." Odierno's spokesman said the general planned to meet with commanders this week to discuss his strategy.

Lt. Col. Josslyn Aberle, a spokeswoman at Baghdad coalition headquarters who worked with Odierno in Tikrit, said he was aggressive, "but never overly aggressive." Members of the 4th Infantry Division have a reputation for fighting hard, she said, but they had to, at least at first.

"It was always going to be about more than combat power. We knew that," she said.

Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Washington-based Brookings Institution who visited Odierno in Tikrit in 2003, said he saw the general use only "proper counterinsurgency methods," such as spending military money to create jobs for locals. That was also the approach taken in the northern city of Mosul by Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division and another possible contender for Casey's job.

"I think Odierno's legacy is clearly complex," O'Hanlon said. "He does not enjoy the reputation for excellence in counterinsurgency that Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Chiarelli and certain other officers enjoy. But the jury is still out in my mind on whether he will do this new job well. Quite possibly he can."

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Times staff writer Peter Spiegel in Washington contributed to this report.

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