The United States' top military officer says he believes Iraqi forces are ready to take full control of their country's cities on Tuesday, as called for in the U.S.-Iraq security agreement. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen spoke to reporters traveling with him in Europe.
In a conversation with a small group of reporters, Admiral Mike Mullen was asked whether he is confident the Iraqi forces can handle the duties they are about to take on.
"I am, and I take that from not only my own interaction there, which is infrequent, but really the reports I get back routinely and the leaders I talk to, not just General Odierno but others that have that confidence as well," Mullen said. "They're going to need some support. They're going to need some enablers. But the United States military leadership in Iraq is confident that they can do that."
U.S. and other international forces will continue to provide air support to the Iraqi forces, as well as help with logistics, reconnaissance and other functions that enable combat troops and local police to do their jobs.
Al-Qaida and other insurgent groups have already begun an expected surge in attacks to challenge the new arrangement. Admiral Mullen says he is concerned, but his commander in Iraq, and the former commander who now heads all U.S. military operations in the region, tell him the Iraqi forces are ready.
"All the engagement I've had with General (Ray) Odierno and General (David) Petraeus is (that) the Iraqi security forces are ready to do this," Mullen said. "We've been out of many of the cities for, I think, well over a year. Baghdad and Mosul are the two biggest challenges that we have right now. We're in a tough fight in Mosul, but the leaders have a plan to get through that. And I think we will."
Admiral Mullen accepted some harsh comments by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who referred to the coming handover of the cities as a victory over occupiers. But the admiral was more focused on the prime minister's comments after the recent attacks, in which he did his best to prevent al-Qaida from sparking another outbreak of sectarian violence.
"I was happy to see the prime minister respond so strongly because I think that leadership is critical, and the leadership of the Iraqi security forces," Mullen said. "And if we're going to get this right in the future, it's clearly going to be up to them."
Admiral Mullen notes that, overall, violence in Iraq is down substantially from recent years, but he acknowledges more violence is possible.
"I'm optimistic, not naïve, about the challenges," Mullen said. "There are lots of them. And we need to not lose focus on Iraq in any way, shape or form."
That will be a key challenge for the admiral and other U.S. officials, as they stress that their priority now is Afghanistan, where U.S.forces are just starting to implement a new strategy aimed at applying hard lessons learned through years of bloodshed in Iraq to what has been a
difficult and even longer fight.