MODERATOR: Well, welcome and good morning. It is my pleasure to once again welcome back to the briefing room General Ray Odierno, no stranger to you but the commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq, in town and gracious enough to come and give us an update of where he sees the operations, in Iraq, and to take some of your questions.
General, thank you very much for joining us today.
GEN. ODIERNO: Good morning, everyone. It's good to be here. I've been back now for about nine days. I'll leave tonight or tomorrow morning to head back to Iraq.
I've had a chance over the last week to discuss many issues involving Iraq with the leadership -- the president, the vice president, the secretary of Defense, the secretary of State -- all the leaders both here in the Pentagon and the State Department and all the other agencies.
I think it's an important time for us to have these discussions, as we go into a very critical time in Iraq, over the next six months, as we're two weeks away from a very important election in Iraq, as we have the second national election to put leaders in place, for Iraq, that I think will go a long way in determining the future of Iraq over the next four years.
We've seen many things happen over the last several years, last several months. I'm not to go in any detail on these slides. But the bottom line on all of these is that security continues to move along and improve, even though we've turned more and more responsibility over to the Iraqi security forces, over the last year in particular.
In addition, we are starting to see some movement in the economic side. Twelve contracts, oil contracts, have been signed by the government of Iraq with different countries. In fact, it's interesting that every country -- member of the United Nations Security Council has a contract in Iraq for oil. I find that to be a very interesting point, a very important one, that this is a worldwide issue and helping them to develop their economy.
So again, what we talked about were transitions, the important transitions over the next six months or so as we get a new government in place, and hopefully to have a smooth transition so we can carry on the continued development and progress inside of Iraq.
That's all I have. So with that, I open it up for any questions you might have.
Q General, I wonder if you could talk about -- look down the road, after 2011, when all the U.S. troops are supposed to be gone. Talk about the U.S. advisory role at that point. What do you see in terms of numbers, as far as what they'll be doing and where they'll be based?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, it's unclear right now, because in order for us to have anybody in Iraq past 2011 we'll have to -- it will have to be requested by the government of Iraq. So until that happens, I see us being at what we -- what we'd usually have at a normal embassy, a military contingent that would help to support Iraq.
What is out there, though, is Iraq continues to buy a significant amount of military materiel from the United States. They've committed to M1A1 tanks. They've committed to helicopters. They committed to other things. So my guess is -- and these will go beyond 2011, so there'll be some requirement for us to continue to coordinate and help them to bring those systems onboard, but that is yet to be --
Q Well, what would that mean? Will it mean thousands of U.S. forces in Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, no, we don't -- we don't know yet. I mean, I would -- I would suggest it'll be a small contingent that would help, to (inaudible) continue to train and advise if they feel it's still necessary. But that will be a decision made by the government of Iraq.
Q Are we expecting they'll think it's going to be necessary?
GEN. ODIERNO: Again, it'll be up to them. I would say, if I was buying equipment from the United States, I would want them to continue to help us to bring it on board and so we can properly execute the employment of those weapons systems.
Q General, on Saturday we saw a prominent Sunni group, the National Dialogue Front, pull out of the elections. What impact do you think that that will have?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I think -- first, I think it's too early. Let's wait and see to see if they actually pull out or they decide to participate.
Obviously we are for all groups participating in the elections. It's important that we have a broad-based group associated with the election.
Now I will tell you today there are 6,242 candidates that are going to run in the elections for 325 seats. And those numbers represent Sunni, Shi'a, Kurds, and so we still have a broad-based group there running for elections inside of Iraq. So we have a small contingent that's talking about potentially not running. We'll see what the impacts of those are. But we still see a broad-based number of candidates running. We have over 1,500 -- I think it's 1,700 female candidates running for election. So there's a broad base of candidates still involved in the elections.
Q Back to the military aspect. Would you expect that there would be a somewhat robust air defense -- U.S. military air defense contingency that will be in place after 2011?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what we're working with now -- we're working with the government of Iraq on building what we're calling a -- their own air sovereignty. We have a plan in place. We're working with them to develop this plan, and depending on how far along we can get between now and the end of 2011, will go a long way in saying: Do they have that established and will they feel like we'll have to continue to assist them post-2011?
And part of this will have to do with how much they can purchase and how much their budget will support buying these systems and how long it will take them to buy those systems, because their budget is still limited, and although I said they have 12 oil contracts, we think it'll take five to 10 years to get those oil contracts to such an extent they would contribute additional revenue to the government, which would increase their ability to buy some of these capabilities.
So it depends on how quickly they'll be able to bring on an air defense capability, radars, whether they're able to have their own air force that can protect their own air sovereignty. We're working very closely with them. And these will be decisions that will be -- one of the first decisions that the new government will have to make when they come in place is, how much support will we need? Do we need any support or not? And that will be one of the key issues that we have to work with them as they come in.
Q Do you really anticipate by that time that they would have their own air-defense system, particularly against external threats?
GEN. ODIERNO: They will have some capability -- what we're calling it is foundational capability for external security. So the issue will be, do they feel comfortable with that, that they can handle it on their own? Will they still feel they need assistance? And that'll be a decision that they have to make.
Q General, if you could talk a little bit about the drawdown in the first part of this year, and does your timing depend on how quickly the next elected government can actually form? Will you delay -- if we have a long process of forming a government, will you delay drawdown?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again, today we're at 96,000 boots on the ground in Iraq. It might vary 1(,000) or 2,000 between now and the -- and the elections March 7th. And what I look at as we look at the continued drawdown to the transition force of approximately 50,000 come September will be several factors.
One is the governmental formation. But it's not necessarily how long it takes to form the government. It's, is it happening in a peaceful manner? Do we think that the -- if there's a problem in forming the government, does it translate into violence? So that'll be a big piece of this, whether it does or not. And right now we're not sure. We think so far it will probably go fairly smoothly, but we'll wait to see.
I have contingency plans, and I've been -- I've briefed the chain of command this week that we could execute if we run into problems, if it goes the way we think, or if it just is a little bit different than the way we think. And we're prepared to execute those.
I won't go into any details about that, but we have those contingencies in place.
Q Last week here in D.C., you have accused some local Iraqi politicians to have close ties with Iran. Could you give us an update about Iran's role right now in Iraq?
And another question: Do you think the Arab countries are doing enough to counter the Iranian influence in Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: I think -- you know, I want to talk about this a bit broader.
I did make a few comments last week about some of the individuals that I believe had ties to Iran. And I still -- based on the intelligence, it's clear to me that they do. But I'd really like to talk about this in a broader sense.
We know that Iraq is centrally located in the Middle East. It plays -- it's in a very important geographic location -- it's in a very -- and it's also very important because of its makeup, its cultural makeup, the fact that Iraq has Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds.
So because of that, because there's a geographic location, because of its natural resources, because of its intellectual capacity, all the countries in the Middle East are very interested in what happens inside of Iraq.
What we're trying to do is to make sure the Iraqis get to choose who leads Iraq and that we don't have such external interference that the Iraqis don't get the chance to choose who their leadership is and who they want to bring them into the future.
And we think this is very important, not only for Iraq itself but for stability in the Middle East and in our interests building a long- term partnership with the government of Iraq. And that's what's critical to us.
So that's how we view this thing. We view that on all the countries, you know, that they should play a constructive role in Iraq, not a destructive role in Iraq. And I think that's the kind of thing that we're looking for.
Q Just let me follow up, General. If you could, answer my question about -- if you can, give us an update about Iran's role right now in Iraq.
And do you think Iraq has been accepted by its neighbors?
GEN. ODIERNO: I would just say that I think first, again, as I said, Iran sees Iraq as very important to them, and so they continue to play a wide variety of roles. They are trying to help develop Iraq in some -- investing inside of Iraq, investing in some corporations, investing in some banks. They continue to play a role in, unfortunately, supporting surrogates inside of Iraq that continue to conduct attacks both against U.S. and Iraqi security forces. And they continue to have significant diplomatic activity inside of Iraq on many different levels. So they use those three areas to try to influence the outcome, and that will continue.
In terms of the other states, I would just say as Iraq moves forward, I would argue that they probably need to work on moving -- reaching out to all of the Arab states that surround it. It's important to develop strong relationships.
They've done a good job of developing a relationship with Turkey and Egypt. They could improve it with some other countries, but I think it's -- they have -- the Saudis, it would be nice to see a better relationship, but the Saudis have to reach out to Iraq as well as Iraq reach; it's got to be mutual. You know, they have to work out some issues with Kuwait. It would be good to see them start to work out some of those issues. The U.S. will try to help, trying to resolve the U.N. Security Council Resolution -- (inaudible).
So it's important that we help play a role there, as well. But that's critical in the way forward. And I think the next government, that will be a very important piece, of how they move their foreign strategy and their regional strategy.
Q General, after your comments last week, the response from within Iraq, (inaudible) in particular, was, effectively, butt out, you're interfering in Iraq's internal politics. Given that this is a sovereign country and one that is somewhat jittery about asserting its sovereignty, what substantively can the U.S. do to try to counteract this Iranian involvement that you've described today and last week?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again, I think there's several things that we try to do. First is we try to recognize Iraq has a constitution, and so we want them to abide by their constitution. We were very encouraged by the fact that last week they signed a code of conduct for the elections that was worked up between all of the different political parties and approved by the political parties. This was done very quickly, based on the reaction to a lot of foreign interference, that we should have a code of conduct that we abide by. So we're very encouraged that they were able to do this last week, and I think that's the kind of thing we need to do.
What we -- again, it's what I said in the beginning. We want Iraqis to make the decision about Iraq. We want to provide the environment where they can choose how they want to move Iraq forward. And that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to give them the environment and atmosphere for them to choose the way forward, and not be overly influenced by those who are -- who are attempting to intimidate or do other things in order for them to have an impact on the final makeup or decisions made inside of Iraq.
Q Do you worry, though, that if you have a process, as was the case with the last two governments of Iraq, if you have a multi- month process before the next government is seated -- do you worry that that would allow more space for other countries to accelerate their involvement?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think we'd all like to see them quickly form the government. But these are very important decisions to be made, and I'd rather see it come out right, and have it take a little bit more time, than come to a bad decision because they're in a hurry to form a coalition.
I mean, what's interesting about it, I think as you watch the elections, the reason it might take a little bit of time is there's going to be no dominant coalition. It's going to require two or three different alliance -- coalitions to come together to form the government. In my mind, that's a very good thing, because that will cause them to have to talk about some of the very difficult issues as they form their government. And it should get a government that is representative of all the Iraqi people because they have to do that.
So in my mind, that's a good thing. If that takes a little bit longer, it's important to get it right, with all the coalitions involved, than get it wrong and have -- you know, and not have all the coalitions involved.
Q Can I follow up on that? Is there a level of the Iranian influence, though, that would delay U.S. withdrawal from Iraq? Is there a level that reaches so high that it would delay --
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I don't see it right now. And I don't think it's so much about Iranian interference that would delay our withdrawal, but it's about the overall situation in Iraq and if Iran and any other country would cause some significant change in the conditions in Iraq, we certainly would have to consider our timeline. And that's based on the course of actions that I've developed.
Q And what would a significant level of Iranian influence look like, such that you --
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think -- I would just say if we see instability forming inside of Iraq, I mean, all of a sudden we see -- because, as the new governments form, we see this instability growing, (inaudible) -- there's tension -- there's tension between groups. They feel like they no longer have a say. They feel like -- that the government might not be able to move forward. They're losing confidence in the democratic process inside of -- I mean, those are the kind of things.
Q Thanks, sir. Looking at the chart of security incidents --
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah.
Q -- attacks are down in all categories, it looks like.
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah.
Q But I'm especially intrigued by the steep drop in attacks against Iraqi infrastructure and the government itself. That was the main target for a very long time. Do you see a shift in the strategy of the anti-government forces as far as what they're going after? Or are they simply doing less across the board?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, I think it’s they’re simply doing less. I think they're still -- what they try to do is -- al Qaeda specifically -- al Qaeda has changed significantly. They are no longer a broad-based insurgency. They are what I call a covert terrorist organization who are attempting to lose -- have the population lose confidence in the government. And so they are targeting very specific governmental facilities. They just can't do it at the levels they were once able to do it at.
And what they want to prove is they want -- they don't want the elections to happen. They want to see the people lose faith in the government. So they don't want to see people come out for the elections.
So what they want to try to do is cause some level of insecurity, chaos and lack of trust in the government, so people don't show up to vote.
So one of my measurements of a successful election is, how many people come out to vote? Above 50 percent is a good indicator for me. And you know, it could be higher than that. That will show how people believe in the process or not. And that will be important, as we move forward.
Q On election security also, can you -- with any detail you can give, how will the security role for American troops on the ground, this time around, be different than the past? (Inaudible.)
And on the violence that we've seen – there are, you know, attacks on markets, on some government institutions -- but what about attacks on Americans specifically, on either troops on patrol or working with the Iraqi forces in tandem?
Any kind of indications that you expect to see more of that?
GEN. ODIERNO: I would just say that first off, could you -- I'm sorry. Could you ask your question again? I apologize.
Q Yes, on --
Q He can't remember it either. (Laughter.)
GEN. ODIERNO: I very much apologize.
Q On the difference in security, from previous elections to now, for troops on the ground, specifically what they'll be doing.
GEN. ODIERNO: Okay. First off, I think it will be very similar to what we did in the provincial elections back in January. I think what you'll see is, it's Iraqi security force led, planned, executed.
We will -- we will help them to plan, train, rehearse. We will provide them enablers. For example, we provide them UAV support. We'll provide them intelligence support. We would maybe provide quick reaction forces, if they are necessary. But for the most part, it will be Iraqi led, Iraqi run. And you'll see mostly Iraqis.
We'll also provide escorts for international observers. That will be our role. But I'm very pleased. We've been doing this. We've been planning for this for a couple months. They're very organized. I feel very comfortable with the plan on the ground. We're integrated at every level, from top to bottom. So I'm very comfortable with the elections.
In terms of the attack on U.S. forces, the one thing I will say -- and I -- we're as active as we've ever been. Although we are not in the lead and although -- we still go out on significant numbers every single day, conduct significant patrols, but we do them with the Iraqi security forces, training and advising. We have actually seen a decrease in attacks.
However, as you run up to the elections, there are probably some Iranian surrogates; they like to shoot some indirect fire at some of our joint bases. We've seeing an increase in that. Very -- so far it has not been very effective. I mean, over the last three months -- in December we had zero non-battle deaths, in January we had one, and so far in February we've not had any battle deaths. We've had some non- battle deaths, which we -- still trying to help (inaudible) work through.
So that kind of also -- and there's been a decrease in the amount of casualties to Iraqi security forces as well. Civilian casualties have been lower; however, there's been some -- as everybody's aware, some high-profile attacks. There's some not-high number killed, but some injuries, a large number of injuries.
So overall, those casualties are down as well. But certainly it's something that we watch very carefully to ensure that the people, again, don't lose confidence in the Iraqi security force. This is about them having confidence in their own security forces. And our objective is to make sure they continue to build confidence in their own security forces as we move forward.
Q General, last week you said you expected the Iraqi election campaign to evolve away from the sectarian issues that were raised early on and to other issues more important to the people. In the wake of this possible Sunni boycott, as well as the fallout from your comments last week, do you still think that's the way it'll go?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think ultimately it's about jobs, it's about security, it's about economic development, it's about a future. And I think ultimately that's what the votes will be about.
I think we've seen that in the provincial elections, and I think we'll continue to see that in the national elections.
Again, I think there will be a fairly good turnout from all sects and all parties. I think the people want to know what's going to be better for them.
And for them, the issue is not sectarianism; for them, the issue is: Can I get a better job? Will I continue to have security? Will we start to see economic growth inside of Iraq? And I think that -- the conversation will turn there.
Q Can I ask you about troops and "don't ask, don't tell?" Are you -- what are you hearing from -- now that the secretary and the chairman have spoken and the chiefs are testifying this week, from the troops about their views on potential repeal? Bottom line: your opinion. Also, do you believe that gays can openly serve in a combat zone?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I'm going to -- what I would say is, first, I really have not gone around and talked about this, to be honest with you. I have -- I'm involved in a lot of other things right now, so I've not focused at all on having a conversation yet about what the soldiers on the ground feel about this, because we're kind of busy right now trying to do our job in Iraq.
But what I do -- what I will say, Barbara, is, I support the secretary's decision to do a very deliberate view and look at this over the next, you know, six to eight to 10 to 12 months to gather information.
And what I worry about is me -- even me giving anecdotal answers to questions. I think let's do this deliberate study that the secretary's done, let's have the soldiers' chance to give their opinion and we'll move out from there. I mean, I think that's how we'll develop our best policy for the way ahead, is, you know, we've got to let them give their opinions. And let's do it in the rights forums, and allow them to decide.
And then, it's my job as a commander to, whatever policy I'm given, to implement it the best way I can. It's my job to ensure that the secretary and the chairman and everyone else, as they do their studies, have access to the soldiers, to get the information in order to see if we can do this right, because this is a critical time in our history.
We're in two wars right now. So I want to see it done properly, and so I want to make sure we get the information so we can implement a policy that we're going -- we're going to go forward with in a proper way. I'm more concerned with that than I am, really, the issue of gays or not -- no gays in the military.
Q Let me just ask you, now that, however, the commander in chief, the secretary and the chairman have all advocated for repeal, publicly, what are your concerns that -- and people always ask the question of how troops in combat feel --
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah.
Q -- in combat zones. What are your concerns that the troops in the combat zone can openly, candidly speak their minds, since the commander in chief, the secretary and the chairman have already laid out what the policy will be?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. I think the soldiers will -- soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines -- I mean, I think when teams are out and they go out and they conduct surveys and they talk to people, I think they will get exactly what they want, in terms of how people feel about it. I truly believe that. It's been my assessment.
If I go around and ask the questions, I won't get -- I won't necessarily get the right answers, because they'll see (inaudible) -- it's a four-star general. They might think a little bit more about what they say to me. But if we send, you know, teams out that can talk to the young soldiers, get their true opinions on how they feel about it, I think we'll come to the right answer.
I'm confident in our system. I'm confident in our system that we will come to the right answer on this, and we'll be able to implement the policy in a way that's effective in combat or in peacetime.
Q Let me follow up on that quickly. There's a sense that we understand among some of the joint chiefs of staff that even heading down this road, doing this study, or even changing policy while you're facing two wars, could be too disruptive to the military. What do you think about that?
GEN. ODIERNO: I think that should be part of the study. I think that --
Q Whether it's disruptive or not?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yes. I -- I just don't know. I mean, I -- I really haven't thought much about this. I got to be honest with you, I just haven't thought about it.
I don't have time to think about it. I'm trying to execute the strategies we -- have now.
That's why I'm for -- what I'm for is the secretary's plan that he's laid out of a deliberate process to look at this and find out the right answers. When is the right time to implement this? How do we implement it? You know, when will it happen? That's -- I want to see those statistics. I don't have them. So I want to see them outline those statistics so we can move forward.
Q General, after seven years of war in Iraq, billions of dollars, thousands of American casualties, your own personal commitment and your family's sacrifice, what do you say to many Americans who are still asking, "Has it been worth it?"
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what I say is, we have an opportunity that we might never have again. We have the opportunity, potentially, to have a moderate democratic government in the Middle East. We might never get that opportunity again. I don't know. But -- so no matter how we've gotten here -- and you can -- we can -- we can have lots of arguments of how we got here -- I would just say that I think we have an opportunity that we might never have before. So what we -- what I was -- what I worry about is, we can't lose the opportunity.
What I don't want to do is -- what I worry about is, when our soldiers leave at the end of 2011 -- soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines -- that we forget about Iraq. If we continue to move forward and we're successful, we have to continue to say we still have a real opportunity here to have a long-term partnership with a country in Iraq that I believe can add stability to the Middle East, which adds stability to the United States. And we can't stop now, and we have to continue to move forward.
And that's going to take commitment beyond military commitment. It's going to take a commitment -- broad-ranging commitment across the government of the United States which is focused on the Strategic Framework Agreement, which was signed back in December 2008.
So I think the American people have to understand we have an opportunity now we haven't had. We have -- and we -- and we have to try to fulfill this opportunity that we have, potentially, (inaudible) --
Q Well, do you get the sense that the United States, United States government, may walk away from Iraq, like they did in Afghanistan?
GEN. ODIERNO: I don't. I think -- I think I've been reassured by all the leadership -- the president, the vice president, the secretary of Defense, secretary of State, General Petraeus, the chairman -- that they all feel that we understand how important this is and that we have an opportunity.
You know, so what we have to do is make sure the American people understand this, because a lot -- I understand we have a lot of challenges right now in the United States. We have a lot of domestically economic -- domestic economic issues, we have -- have war in Afghanistan that we're worried about.
So what we have to understand is that we do have an opportunity -- that they have to understand we have an opportunity here that we might never seek (sic) again, and so they have to help us to support the continued development of Iraq. And that's the point I would try to make, and it's a tough sell.
Q Sir, going to the troops again, what's the morale of U.S. troops in Iraq today? And do you anticipate a letdown after the election?
GEN. ODIERNO: First off, I would -- I would say that what's really heartening is, especially from the noncommissioned officers and the officers, who most are on their second, third, fourth, fifth rotation, they are seeing the progress. I go around three or four times a week down to battalion level, brigades, and one of the questions I ask, well, how many times you been here? What do you think? What are you seeing this time?
And to a man, they all say that it's really incredible to them how far they've come from just two years ago, and what they're seeing on the ground, the fact they're seeing growth in these Iraqi towns, the fact they're seeing some development, the advancements they've seen in the Iraqi security forces and their ability to do operations.
So I think they're heartened by that, the fact that they have made progress and the fact that we are starting and we are moving forward. I think they're very heartened by that. So I think morale is pretty good in Iraq. They feel good about it.
I think the elections is another important milestone. So what they want to see, if we can get through the elections, then we can move forward.
We get to our transition force, and our mission changes to training and advising and assisting the State Department and conducting some limited counterterrorism operations. I mean, I think they see that as success. They see that as a continued movement forward towards a more stable Iraq that's, you know, a moderate democratic country, potentially.
Q General, I wanted to follow up on your comments about this opportunity for a moderate democratic Iraq. At this point, how much of that is really up to the Iraqis, and how much and what can be done by the United States to influence that outcome?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. I mean, ultimately, it's always going to be up to the Iraqis. What we want to do is help them to create the environment that allows them to make -- you know, to move forward. It’s -- the Iraqis have shown they want to move forward. They have -- they have signed a security agreement with the United States. They have signed a strategic framework agreement which is -- which is -- goes on and has no time limit on it. So they've already signed something that says we want to have a long-term relationship with the United States.
So I think the Iraqis have said we want to move forward; we want to move -- we want to be a centerpiece; we believe Iraq has the intellectual, Iraq has the economic ability to be a leader in the Middle East; the new Iraq has a chance to be a leader. And I think -- so I think they've shown those signs that they want that.
But you know, what's reminded us, as we've moved up here towards the elections, is Iraq is still fragile. It's politically fragile. And it's politically fragile because of what they've had to go through over the last 30 years, from a dictatorship to the government being overthrown to the sectarian violence that we witnessed in 2006 and '7. This is all part of the evolutionary process. And so it's still fragile.
So what we have to do is help them through this fragility, where they become more stable economically, more stable diplomatically, more stabile military (sic), so they can continue to move forward. That's how we can help.
Q On the microlevel, how would you assess the capability of the Iraqi security forces right now?
And on a macro level, do you envision Iraq as a security bulwark against countries such as Iran, say in the next 10 to 15 years?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I would just say, is, first, Iraq continues to improve significantly in its ability to do its own internal security. They're are in the lead across the entire country. They are -- they are making the daily decisions on what goes on in Iraq. We are in support of them. And as you see here, the security continues to sustain itself for the most part.
What I would say is they continue to develop their ministries, and their other kind of capabilities continue to develop. And how we are able to get through this transition into a new government will be very important on how farther this continues to move forward through 2011.
Ten to 15 years from now, it's hard to predict. It's hard to decide which way they will go. What I say is I see a very positive influence in the Middle East.
And that's why it's important for us to sustain a long-term partnership, one of equality. This is not -- you know, this is an equal relationship, one that we are on equal footing with them. We're there to help them when they need it. We're helping them -- and it's not just militarily; it's culturally, economically, technologically, to help them to move forward. I'm convinced that if they can really establish themselves economically over the next five to eight years, you're going to really see Iraq develop as a country.
Q Well, would you see it as a reliable partner for the U.S. as the U.S. is trying to advance its national security goals in the region?
GEN. ODIERNO: I think a stable Iraq translates into a more stable region. So just the fact that you have a stable Iraq that is working with us economically, diplomatically, from a security perspective, that ultimately translates into a more stable Middle East.
Q Can I just ask you to follow up briefly on your discussion earlier of a possible change in the calendar for combat withdrawal based on the political situation? Are you talking about kind of moving around who comes out when, but still having everybody out by the August deadline?
GEN. ODIERNO: I mean, I would just say, based on what I see today, I fully expect us to be down to approximately 50,000 by September 1st.
What I said was, if something happens between now or over the next three or four months that would potentially -- I have a course of action that could potentially say I need some people to stay a little bit longer, or we might not quite go down to -- I have those prepared to submit and ask for approval.
But right now, our plan is to be at 50,000 by the 1st of September. And if you ask me today, I'm fully committed and I believe that's the right course of action.
Q But, theoretically, you could change the composition of the withdrawal or potentially leave a few more there than is currently envisioned?
GEN. ODIERNO: I could do that if I -- again, I would have to seek approval to do that, but yes.
Q Could you speed it up also?
GEN. ODIERNO: I could. I could. We've done that, actually. I mean, the original plan had us to be at about 115,000 today, and right now we're at 96(,000). So we're about 20,000 ahead of where we thought we would be when we originally built the plan, and that's based on what we've seen and what we think we need.
Q General, how much will the Kurdish element in Iraq be a part of this new government? And talk to us about the continued effort to try to blend these Kurdish forces with the Iraqi security forces. And what are your concerns about continued instability up in that region of the country?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, the Kurds -- the Kurds will play a significant role in the new government. You know, they will bring a bloc of votes that are fairly consistent, and they will -- they will have a lot to do with the formation of the new government.
In terms of the joint -- of the disputed areas and the joint security forces that have been established in both -- in three provinces -- in Diyala, Kirkuk and in Nineveh province -- we have established the joint checkpoints. We've had -- you know, there's been some challenges to that on the ground from a security perspective. They've stood up so far.
There are some issues we still have to work through yet. There's still tension, specifically in Nineveh province right now. So we have some -- we're still working to reduce some of those tensions. It's important that we reduce that tension in order for everyone to feel comfortable two weeks from now when we conduct the elections, and we're working towards that.
Q Can you give us an idea of what steps you all are doing to try to reduce that tension?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think, first, it's building -- it's helping to build cooperation and relationships between the Kurdistan regional government and the government in Nineveh province, to try to reduce that tension.
It's a -- it's a challenge. It's long-standing issues there. But we're trying to work our way through it to build that confidence between them and to make them both realize that there's long-term implications; and that they have to understand it's not just today, it's what happens tomorrow and the day after and six months and a year from now; and that we expect them to be representative of that, and that they respect the rule of law in those areas. And so we're working with them very carefully to do that.
Q General, you said a moment ago -- talking about the importance of maintaining a long-term U.S. relationship, you said it had been a tough sell. A tough sell to whom? To the White House, to Congress?
GEN. ODIERNO: I think what I would say is what I worry about being is -- I'm not sure if I used "tough sell." I said tough sell to the American people, I think is what I meant, because of all the costs, and they worry about the number of costs we have. And I think it's important that we communicate to them the importance of this.
You know, I think everyone in the administration understands it. I think everyone in the, you know, Pentagon here understands it clearly. It's important for us to start talking through what that might mean -- a successful Iraq means. And it does ultimately translate into more stability, which I think is important for us and many others as well.
Q Do you -- you mentioned earlier that you're going to continue to support the Iraqis with ISR. There's been a lot of demands for various ISR assets in Afghanistan and some has been pulled out of Iraq. Do you have the ISR assets you still need? Do you have enough of it? Or, conversely, do you anticipate after the election being able to push more of your assets to the other theater?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, there ain't no commander who would stand up here and ever say you have enough. So I would never -- you'll never hear me say I have enough. However, I think we've been able to do a very good job of balancing the requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq. I've worked very hard with General Petraeus and General McChrystal to make good, conscious decisions.
Clearly, we are -- we are -- they're adding much more ISR to Afghanistan. But we're developing more ISR within DOD, and so what's being newly developed is going to Afghanistan. And what we're trying to do is sustain the level of ISR that we've had now over the last year or so and sustain that. ISR is important, as you even draw down. Even when we go to a smaller force, I still need ISR because it's very important in protecting our force in Iraq and also for us to continue to do our mission there.
So I'm comfortable with where we are at now. I think we have a good plan. I think General Petraeus has worked a very good plan to shift more ISR to Afghanistan without impacting Iraq too seriously, as of today.
Q There is a recent Post article quoting U.S. officials saying there was a real concern about Iraq slipping back into the '06 level of violence. And you yourself have called it fragile, and yet you don't seem particularly concerned about the sectarian tensions.
GEN. ODIERNO: We monitor sectarian violence on a daily basis. We watch it very carefully. And I have seen no significant uptick in any type of sectarian behavior.
Is there a potential for it, which I think the article was kind of leaning toward? Is there a potential for more sectarian violence if the governmental formation doesn't go right, if the Sunnis don't participate, if they boycott? Sure, there's always a potential for sectarian violence down the road. But I think -- we don't see it now.
The other important piece to understand is sometimes -- there was a report today of a killing of some Shi'a in Baghdad, gruesome killing. It's sometimes difficult to understand if it's sectarian violence or if it's criminal. What we see in Iraq is you have a lot more criminality now, as the security situation improved. And you don't -- and it's hard for us to determine, so we have to do a very careful evaluation of that. But we have not seen any significant -- yet -- rise in sectarian violence. But we watch it very, very carefully.
The other thing we're looking for now is political violence. Are we seeing any political violence? We've seen some attacks on party headquarters, those kind of things, and we watch that very carefully as well. And those are the things we're emphasizing.
You know, what's interesting is the level of attacks, we expected a significant increase in incidents. We have not seen it yet, but we still -- (knocks on podium) -- we still have two more weeks. What we have seen is some change, you know, maybe a little bit more political targeting that's going on. So we watch that very carefully. But we have not seen a significant increase. But obviously we're watching that very carefully and are prepared to try to counteract that if we have to.
Q Sir, beyond September, do you see 50,000 as being the new steady state for the following progression into the year, before you get out in 2011?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah.
Q And in 2011, how do you begin the withdrawal at that point? Do you begin it, like --
GEN. ODIERNO: This is -- we haven't talked in specific terms yet about this, but it's very important to understand that there's a complex transition that's going to go on in-- the end of 2010, beginning of 2011, as the military draws down, and how we transition responsibility over to the government of Iraq in some cases, to the embassy, in other cases to NGOs. So one thing we have to remember is the faster we draw down from 50,000, the faster we have to transition to the State Department and these other organizations. So what we want to do is we want to do this very deliberately, because how we transition will go a lot into saying how well we do post-2011.
So the way I see it is I expect us to stay at 50,000 probably somewhere through the middle of 2011, and then we'll begin to draw down to zero. If we do it faster than that, then you've got to increase the money you give to the State Department or the embassy. You have to increase the -- you have to -- you have to speed up the transition. And what we worry about is if we do that too quickly we won't do it right. So we want to do that very deliberately and smoothly.
Q Do you think the State Department right now has the resources to absorb some of the responsibilities that you're currently given?
GEN. ODIERNO: We are working very carefully with them. We have a joint campaign plan that the ambassador and I have worked together on that identifies all of these issues. We're working very carefully to see which ones -- we hope that we'll terminate some just because we've finished. We hope that we'll turn some over to the government of Iraq and some will be turned over to the U.S. embassy.
The one we use is police training will be turned over to the U.S. embassy. They will continue to do a role in police training. They have identified a significant amount of cadre that will come in and pick up what we've done. Will they be able to do exactly what the military have done? No. But we think they'll be able to carry the program on, you know, from where we've brought it, and that's the most important piece.
STAFF: We have time for about one more.
GEN. ODIERNO: Sir.
Q Thank you. If I could go back to the security situation on the ground -- and this is more, I guess, a real-time question -- what are the areas around the country now that are your -- are your biggest concern? And with the election coming up, too, are you preparing for certain areas that may be a worry? And how are you -- how are you preparing that? Are you going to use more U.S. troop influence in those areas?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, whenever I talk about security in Iraq, the place I always worry the most about is Baghdad, because if you're al Qaeda or anybody else and you want to make a statement inside of Iraq and you want to create instability, you go after the institutions right in the center of Baghdad. So that's always my number-one concern.
So what we've done is we've worked -- we are embedded with all of the command structures in Baghdad -- the Baghdad Operational Command, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Interior, police structures -- to help them to ensure they have everything they need to provide the appropriate security, starting two weeks ago all the way through a couple weeks past the election, to ensure that we're able to secure -- help them the best we can for them to secure Baghdad.
Some of the other areas I worry about are the disputed areas where you might find some insurgent groups try to exploit these differences between Sunnis and Kurds -- Sunni Arabs and Kurds, and they try to create some sort of an impression and discourage people from voting because of this violence that they have. So those -- that's the other areas I concern myself with.
Q General, one quick follow-up. Admiral Mullen, of course, offered his personal views on don't ask, don't tell. What are you own views on whether gays should be allowed to serve openly?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again, I'll be honest with you, I really haven't had a lot of time to think through it. What's interesting to me, the comment I make all the time is, as we've gone through this don't ask, don't tell, to me it's become a non-issue as we've moved forward. I haven't seen any issue. That doesn't mean it's right. All I'm saying is, as I've implemented this war now for seven years, we've been able to get forces out there are ready and prepared to conduct operations.
My opinion is everyone should be allowed to serve, as long as we're still able to fight our wars and we're able to have forces that are capable of doing whatever we're asked to do. And that's what I want the study to go through and tell us how we're going to best do this. And that's -- and so that's why I support the --
Q But in your own view, should they -- gays be allowed to serve openly?
GEN. ODIERNO: Again, I think -- I really haven't had a lot of time to sit down and think about it. I don't want to -- I don't want to appear that I'm trying to dodge the question, but I truly have not thought much about it, to be honest with you.
What I want is a force that's capable of doing what we ask, because this is life and death. So what I'm more interested in is how we implement it, and do we implement it in such a way where it doesn't put our forces at risk. And that's why I support what the secretary has said; that he's going to do this, study it very carefully, and then we'll go ahead and implement it. And that's -- I support that.
Q How much longer are you going to stay in Baghdad?
GEN. ODIERNO: I don't know. I thought I was leaving a while ago. But no, I don't know. The president will decide that with the secretary of Defense and the chairman, and what they decide I'll follow.
Q Can I ask you about the transition to the new name Operation New Dawn? Was that done in consultation with the Iraqi government? And what's the significance of doing so?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I think it's significant because it marks a new -- a new part of the relationship; the fact that, you know, we're ending combat operations, we're going to go to training and advising, we're going to go to conducting counterterrorism operations. It's an important step to show that Iraqi government is becoming more and more mature, and that we're reducing our role in Iraq, although it'll still be somewhat significant.
And I -- and I would close by emphasizing that. Fifty thousand soldiers in Iraq is still significant. It still enables us to help them to move forward towards a more stable Iraq.
So before I end, I just want to -- I can't leave without thanking all the great soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who continue to serve bravely and selflessly in Iraq. Their dedication is incredible, their ability to conduct the many changing missions that we have. People don't realize the many changes we've gone over the last 15 months and how adaptive our leaders and our soldiers have been in order to be creative and continuing to move this mission forward.
And I'm very proud that I have the opportunity to serve with them, and I'm proud that I've been given the responsibility to command them. And it's been an honor for me and will continue to be.
So thank you very much.
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