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General Who Backed Surge Picked For Top Iraq Job
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General Who Backed Surge Picked For Top Iraq Job

Iraq

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now, to coming changes at the highest levels in the U.S. military. This summer, General Ray Odierno takes over as the top American military commander in Iraq, he succeeds General David Petraeus. Odierno is different from Petraeus in both background and temperament.

And as NPR's Tom Bowman report, Odierno may face greater political than military challenges in Iraq.

TOM BOWMAN: Two months after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the hard-driving general told reporters about his sweeping combat operations. Brushing aside questions about rising hit-and-run attacks.

Major General RAY ODIERNO (U.S. Army): This is not guerilla warfare, it is not close to guerilla warfare because it's not coordinated, it's not organized, it's not led. The soldiers that conduct these operations don't even have the willpower. We find that the majority of the (unintelligible) don't fire a shot and I've heard they'll drop their weapon and will give up right away.

BOWMAN: But it was guerilla warfare growing fast, and there were charges even among fellow generals that then-Major General Odierno was making matters worse.

Professor RON COLE (Middle Eastern History, University of Michigan): Odierno just didn't get it.

BOWMAN: Ron Cole is a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan.

Prof. COLE: He didn't understand what it means to win hearts and minds, he didn't understand local culture. He'd have populations cordoned off, do search-and-destroy missions.

BOWMAN: An Army report released just this week criticized Odierno's combat operations, leading to what he called disaffection within the Sunni community.

Brigadier General Joe Anderson later served as an aide to Odierno. He argues Odierno faced a tough enemy in the Sunni triangle and worked hard to rebuild the area. But, he adds…

Brigadier General JOE ANDERSON (U.S. Army): I think self-admittedly he would tell you he probably came in a little stronger than he wished he would have liked back in '03.

BOWMAN: Odierno told senators in May, he's ready to pick up where Petraeus leaves off.

Gen. ODIERNO: We're clearly headed in the right direction. And I believe a self-reliant government of Iraq that is stable, one that is committed to governance and protecting its own people and serving all its people, and I think it's closer today than it has been.

BOWMAN: Odierno wouldn't agree to an interview for this story since the full Senate hasn't yet approved his new post. The general's supporters say that five years after barreling through the Sunni triangle, he's learned a lot. Such as the importance of counterinsurgency, winning those hearts and minds. And he suffered a personal toll of war; his Army-officer son lost an arm in combat.

Retired General Jack Keene is a strong supporter of Odierno. Keene dismisses the stark comparisons. Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. who would charm sheikhs. Big Ray Odierno, the aggressive armor officer and on-time football player.

General JACK KEENE (Retired U.S. Army): They both have tremendous credentials. I think the differences is more personality and style, which I think is, you know, somewhat insignificant.

BOWMAN: But questions linger about Odierno's style, has he really changed from his hard-charging days in the Sunni triangle? Some officers told NPR Odierno balked at releasing large number of Iraqi detainees no longer deemed a threat to the Americans, an effort supported by Petraeus to ease the insurgency.

General Joe Anderson defends his old boss on detainee releases.

Gen. ANDERSON: We currently put the brakes on the numbers because they were trying to have these massive releases that were not going to be properly screened and nor could we properly support getting these folks to where they had to get.

BOWMAN: Other say Odierno may face a more difficult time than Petraeus. American surge troops are coming home, political issues in Iraq still fester.

Lieutenant Colonel JOHN GENTILLO (U.S. Army): The long fundamental issue is who will ultimately hold power in Iraq, will it be Shia or Sunni?

BOWMAN: Lieutenant Colonel John Gentillo has written about the so-called U.S. troop surge for Military Review, an Army publication. Odierno was an early proponent of the surge, butting his bosses. But Gentillo says, more important to reduce the violence is a ceasefire ordered by anti-American cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr and an American program to pay one-time Sunni insurgents. Now, Sadr's ceasefire is wobbly and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is not ready to fully accept those Sunni peacekeepers.

Again, Professor Cole.

Prof. COLE: Of course, the U.S. is still picking up the tab for this. It's not clear to what extent the al-Maliki government is really committed to it.

BOWMAN: And on Capitol Hill, there's the ultimate question: When can more American troops come home?

Senator James Webb, a Virginia Democrat, pressed Odierno in May. Does he think a stable Iraqi state needs any U.S. forces?

Gen. ODIERNO: I do not. I believe what we would want, though, is to maintain, obviously, military contacts as we do with many countries around the world over time.

BOWMAN: Left unsaid was how much time before American troops are reduced to just military contacts.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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