By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
BAGHDAD, Sept. 16 -- Gen. Ray Odierno assumed command of American forces in Iraq on Tuesday morning from Gen. David H. Petraeus, stepping into the job as the United States starts to reduce troop levels and as the Iraqi government asserts more control over security.
Odierno told reporters that recent improvements in Iraq's security situation are reversible. Although the challenges that bedeviled Petraeus as commander -- widespread sectarian violence and entrenched militia and insurgent cells -- have ebbed considerably, the country's volatile politics and several unresolved regional and national disputes could easily spark violence.
"We are in a fragile state now," Odierno said. "What I want to do is move it to a more stable state."
One of the short-term challenges he will face is the handover of the Sons of Iraq -- tens of thousands of mainly Sunni guards who have helped to improve security -- from U.S. to Iraqi control. The Sunni fighters want jobs in Iraq's security forces, but the Shiite-led government says some of the fighters have backgrounds as insurgents or are unqualified to join the police or the military.
Also, Iraq and the United States remain in contentious negotiations over the terms under which American troops will be allowed to remain in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of the year.
Odierno called political progress in Iraq an "evolutionary process" but acknowledged that it has been "slow." He said passage of a law that will set ground rules for provincial elections that were scheduled to take place in the fall, but have been stalled in parliament amid heated disputes, is an important priority.
Odierno has served two tours in Iraq, most recently as Petraeus's second in command. Petraeus, who relinquished command during a ceremony at a U.S. military base, arrived in Iraq in February of last year and presided over a temporary increase in U.S. troops.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who traveled to Baghdad for the ceremony, lauded Petraeus's accomplishments.
"Slowly but inexorably, the tide began to turn," Gates said, reflecting on Petraeus's tenure. "The enemy took a fearsome beating they will not soon forget."
But he warned that the U.S. mission in Iraq is not winding down. "Great peril remains," Gates said during the ceremony in the rotunda of a palace built by Saddam Hussein. "Fighting still lies ahead."
Although violence has decreased significantly in Iraq in recent months, there are still frequent bombings, including three on Monday that killed more than 30 people.
As the top commander in Iraq, Odierno will continue to report to Petraeus, who will lead the U.S. military's Central Command, which oversees military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
President Bush announced recently that 8,000 troops will be redeployed from Iraq by early next year. He also said more service members will be deployed to Afghanistan, where insurgents have stepped up attacks in recent months.