Gen. Petraeus Ends Time In Iraq With Handover
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
At a ceremony in Iraq today, General David Petraeus handed over authority to General Ray Odierno. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made the trip to Baghdad for the event. General Petraeus is headed home to the U.S. to take over Central Command. In his new job, he'll oversee the U.S. military throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was at the handover ceremony as General Odierno was declared the new commander in Iraq.
General DAVID PETRAEUS (Former Commanding General, Multi-National Force - Iraq; Commander, U.S. Central Command): By authority, the undersigned assumes command of Multi-National Force - Iraq, effective 16 September, 2008.
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: And with that announcement, arguably the most famous general in the U.S. military relinquished his command here. When General David Petraeus took over in February 2007, Iraq was in the grips of a brutal civil war. His plan, now known simply as the surge, is partially credited with vastly reducing violence in Iraq. Yesterday, only three unidentified bodies were found in the capital as opposed to the dozens that used to be discovered during the height of the bloodshed. At today's ceremony, Secretary Gates lauded Petraeus' contribution to the war effort.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Defense Department): You have dealt the enemies of the United States of American in Iraq a tremendous if not mortal blow. And I believe history will regard you as one of our nation's great battle captains.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: For his part, Petraeus ended his speech with this message for his troops.
General PETRAEUS: Thanks to all of you again for your professionalism, your dedication, and the sacrifices each of you and your families have made. You truly have turned hard but not hopeless into still hard but hopeful.
(Soundbite of applause)
GARCIA-NAVARRO: He received a standing ovation. The challenges facing his successor, General Odierno, are different to those encountered by Petraeus 19 months ago. Instead of bringing in more troops, the U.S. is drawing down its forces here. Eight thousand additional troops will be leaving Iraq by February. Security is better, but the mantra remains. The progress here is both fragile and reversible. At his first news conference as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Odierno said that he will be cautious in recommending more troop cuts.
General RAYMOND ODIERNO (Commanding General, Multi-National Force - Iraq): What I want to do here for at least the next three months through the end of the year is continue to conduct assessments, to continue to see where we're at, consult with the government of Iraq, and then make some recommendations.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Odierno said the concern is that security could worsen if there is a sudden drawdown.
General ODIERNO: We are in a fragile state now. What I want to do is build it to a more stable, stable state. And I think we're in the process of doing it. It just takes some time, and it's slow. So, yes, that's part of what we have to do, is maintain the stability so the government can continue to grow.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the relationship with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is a delicate one. Maliki did not show up for today's ceremony. The Iraqi government has been asserting itself over the past few months, sometimes in ways that have run contrary to U.S. interests. Right now, the U.S. is locked in negotiations with Iraqis over two key issues: a Status of Forces Agreement that will determine the parameters under which U.S. troops operate here and the future of the U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary groups known as the Sons of Iraq.
Both sets of discussions have proved contentious. The Iraqis have asked the U.S. to set a date for the withdrawal of their forces in the security talks, and Maliki's government has shown itself reluctant to fully integrate the Sons of Iraq into the army and police. Odierno, though, acknowledged that it is time for the U.S. to slowly relinquish control.
General ODIERNO: The time is changing a little bit. Iraq is becoming a more sovereign nation. Iraq is going to take on more of the responsibility. It's my job to make sure that we're able to do that in a very smooth way where we don't fall back.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.
SIEGEL: And you can see a timeline of General Petraeus' military career at npr.org.