The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq says the planned withdrawal of American troops is on schedule despite ongoing political uncertainty in Baghdad, and an increase in attacks by militants. General Ray Odierno talked about the situation on the ground during an interview broadcast Sunday on American television.
General Odierno says progress has been made in Iraq, but acknowledges much more must be done. He says political parties must sort out the results of recent elections and form a government, and Iraqi forces still require U.S. military training and support. But he says he remains confident that the timetable for a U.S. military withdrawal can and will be met.
Odierno told the Fox News Sunday television program there are about 95,000 American troops in Iraq. He said almost half will be pulled out during the coming months as U.S. combat operations draw to a close. "Our plans are intact. I feel very comfortable with our plan," he said. "And unless something unforeseen and disastrous happens, I fully expect us to be at 50,000 by the first of September."
The remaining troops will support the Iraqi military, and take part in counter-terrorism efforts, with a complete withdrawal planned by the end of 2011.
Odierno was asked about the impact of a series of recent terror attacks in Iraq. He said overall, violence is down and al-Qaida's capabilities have been downgraded. "They are still capable of conducting attacks against innocent civilians, but the Iraqis have rejected the ideology of al-Qaida," said General Odierno. "They are rejecting al-Qaida as a whole inside of Iraq."
There have been a number of militant bombings in and around Baghdad since the March 7 parliamentary elections in Iraq, raising doubts about the strength of Iraqi security forces. Odierno left no doubt he believes that with a little help, the Iraqis can handle the job. "The most important thing is the Iraqi security forces are now in the lead in going after al-Qaida and they are now developing their own capabilities to do this," he said. The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq also talked about the challenge coming from neighboring Iran.
He said Tehran remains a threat. "They provide training for those who continue to try to create instability in Iraq. They continue to try to increase their influence there," said General Odierno. "They are involved in attempting to influence the results of the election. They do not respect Iraq's sovereignty."
Odierno said the answer to the problem lies in building up the capability of Iraqi forces to protect their own country. He said Iraq wants good relationships with all its neighbors. But he said Iraqis are nationalists, and they will move to keep Iranian influence in check.