As the U.S. withdraws from Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno bids an anxious goodbye

As the top United States commander in Iraq, and the longest-serving U.S. service member there, Ray Odierno had a unique vantage point.
By Ernesto Londoño
Sunday, September 5, 2010

BAGHDAD -- When Gen. Ray Odierno returned to Iraq at the end of 2006 to take the reins of ground forces during the darkest days of the war, his team boiled down the country's ills in a document it called the "Gap Chart."

The elaborate diagram, a product of many late nights of debate among Odierno and his confidantes, laid out the aspirations and needs of Iraqis, the government's inability to meet them and the militant groups that were exploiting the seam.

At the time, militias overran the Iraqi security forces. Sectarian battles divided once-mixed neighborhoods. The newly elected government was helpless.

The only way to avoid defeat, Odierno concluded, was for the U.S. military to fill the gap, quickly and decisively, becoming essentially a caretaker state.

Nearly four years later, President Obama has declared an end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq and drawn down U.S. forces to just under 50,000 troops. Odierno, who became the top U.S. general in the war, has given up command in Baghdad. At the ceremony Wednesday marking the official transition from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn, he spoke of the inspiring milestones he had witnessed and praised the sacrifice and resiliency of the Iraqi people, who "stood up against tyranny, terrorism and extremism and decided to determine their own destiny as a people and as a democratic state."

But the general and his aides left Baghdad last week with plenty of milestones to go. Is the distance between Iraqi society's needs and the government's abilities still dangerously wide? As the U.S. military disengages from Iraq over the next year, who will fill that gap?

"It's going to be three to five years post-2011 before we really understand where Iraq is going and how successful we've actually been in pushing Iraq forward," Odierno said in an interview in Baghdad before he left.

Could it all fall apart?

"It could," he said.

Odierno, a bald, 6-foot-5 New Jersey native, has served longer in Iraq than any of his peers -- more than 4 1/2 years in all. He leaves behind a war not yet won, not yet lost and not yet over.

The gap has narrowed in one notable way: Iraq's security forces, trained, equipped and to a large extent designed by the U.S. military, are increasingly professional and competent.

But the country's political ruling class, made up largely of exiles catapulted into power after the 2003 invasion, remains locked in a fight for control, unable to form a government six months after parliamentary elections. Basic services remain poor and in some instances have deteriorated from just a few years ago. Insurgent groups launch attacks nearly every day, and reconciliation among ethnic and sectarian groups is elusive.

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