By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON - As the troop drawdown continues in Iraq, the top U.S. commander there said he's convinced the Iraqi security forces are ready to take over more responsibility, and that the sacrifices the United States has made to get to this point will prove worthwhile.
"I think we have an opportunity in Iraq we might never get again," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, said during an interview with Soldiers Radio and Television's Gail McCabe.
As Iraq builds on the security, economic and diplomatic progress made to date, Odierno said, it stands to enhance stability beyond its own borders within the broader Middle East.
"If that happens, I believe (the sacrifice) has been worth it, because it could bring stability here for a long time," he said.
Odierno said he's impressed with progress the Iraqi security forces have made, particularly since the new security agreement took effect in January. "Today, they are in charge everywhere in Iraq," he said. "We no longer conduct large-scale operations in Iraq. They do. We support those operations."
As a result, Odierno said, he expects little change in how operations are conducted on the ground when Operation Iraqi Freedom wraps up Aug. 31 and the mission in Iraq becomes Operation New Dawn.
"Frankly, the missions we are doing today are the same missions we'll do on 1 September when Operation New Dawn starts," he said. "We are already in stability operations."
The big difference will be that the United States will have 50,000 rather than 95,000 troops on the ground ? a force Odierno called sufficient to continue the support mission.
"We don't need to do that with 95,000 in Iraq today," he said. "It is time, and appropriate for [the Iraqis] to take on this responsibility, and [for] us to start to get more and more in the background. ... I think it is that time in the fight for us to do that."
Meanwhile, Odierno said, the U.S. is committed to train, equip, and most importantly, professionalize the Iraqi security forces during the next 20 months.
If there's a single lesson learned from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Odierno said, it's the importance of the "unity of effort" that brings together all of the elements of national power needed to ensure success.
"This is a complex place, and it takes complex thought; it takes complex solutions to solve problems here," he said. He credited young military leaders "who have adapted over time" and learned how to use all the tools available to them ? through the military, the U.S. embassy, nongovernmental organizations and other organizations.
"They have learned how to do that, and gotten much better at it, and that is what has helped to drive us toward a more stable Iraq," he said.
Odierno said he hopes to take those lessons with him when he moves to his next military post.
That's the way we need to train our leaders of the future," he said.