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Petraeus passes the baton in Iraq

Gen. Ray Odierno, new commander of U.S. troops, presses for elections and a bigger security role by Iraqis.

September 17, 2008|Tina Susman and Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Army Gen. Ray Odierno took command of American troops here Tuesday with words that made it clear he wants the Iraqis to take a bigger role in security and move forward with political progress as pressure mounts for U.S. forces to leave the country.

In comments made shortly after receiving command from his predecessor and former boss, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Odierno emphasized the need for Iraq's government to hold provincial elections this year and use its military and police to preserve the security gains made since Petraeus' arrival in February 2007.

U.S. troops will be there to help, Odierno said. But he added, "We must do this with our Iraqi partners out front, in the lead."

Petraeus, credited with overseeing a dramatic decline in violence, left Iraq to take charge of the U.S. Central Command, a job that will require that he balance demands for more troops in Afghanistan with the need to leave enough in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of violence. President Bush plans to withdraw 8,000 of the 146,000 troops in Iraq by February; the Iraqi government wants U.S. officials to agree to a 2011 date for a total withdrawal.

But senior military officials warn against repeating a mistake made in 2005, when Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who preceded Petraeus here, tried to shift responsibilities to Iraqi forces who were not ready to take over. Security gains quickly collapsed, and by the time Petraeus arrived, scores of people were being killed each day in sectarian violence.

Despite the bloodshed at the time, when Casey left in February 2007 he predicted that Iraqi forces would be in control by that autumn.

Nineteen months after his exit, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, and on civilians, are down about 80%, the U.S. military says. But seven of Iraq's 18 provinces have yet to be handed over to Iraq, and speaker after speaker Tuesday described the current relative stability as fragile and reversible.

"Caution should be the order of the day," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said at the change-of-command ceremony, held beneath a massive chandelier in the rotunda of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces. The cool, marble interior was in sharp contrast with the eerie atmosphere outside, where a 2-day-old desert storm had blanketed Baghdad in an ochre haze and covered trees, cars and buildings in dust and sand.

Odierno, on his third deployment to Iraq, returns after just seven months away. His last tour ran from December 2006 through last February, when he served as Petraeus' No. 2 during some of Iraq's worst violence since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003.

Petraeus said Odierno's experience made him "the perfect man for the job."

The outgoing commander recalled comments he made in February 2007 in which he gave a somber assessment of the job facing troops. At that time, he warned that their goal of stopping Iraq's rising bloodshed was "hard but not hopeless."

"You truly have turned 'hard but not hopeless' into 'still hard, but hopeful,' " he said before receiving a standing ovation from troops and political leaders.

In his first news briefing minutes after the ceremony, Odierno said he hoped his job would involve more political and diplomatic wrangling than street fighting.

Odierno emphasized the need for provincial elections, which U.S. officials have long said would balance lopsided power structures that have contributed to sectarian and ethnic tensions. But Iraq's parliament has yet to pass legislation to clear the way for such elections, which are supposed to take place this year.

Odierno also said he wanted to see continued improvement in the Iraqi security forces and in the government's ability to provide essential services such as electricity and clean water.

When he took over as Petraeus' deputy, Odierno's reputation was not for having the finesse of a counterinsurgency expert such as his boss, but for being a hyper-tough officer who thought little about the unintended consequences of military action. But by almost all accounts, Odierno has transformed himself under Petraeus' watch into an expert in the nuanced war-fighting required to pacify an insurgency.

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tina.susman@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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