The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, who soon will end a total of four years in the country on several tours of duty, says it will not be clear for five to 10 years whether the American effort there was truly worthwhile, and that the seating of a new government in the coming months will be an early indication. Army General Ray Odierno made the remarks on the Defense Department's television channel on Monday.
The interviewer from the Pentagon Channel asked General Odierno whether the nearly 4,400 American military deaths and the nearly 18,000 injuries, plus hundreds of billions of dollars spent, have been worthwhile.
The general said that if Iraq seizes the opportunity to become a stable, secure, anti-terrorist ally of the United States, the effort and sacrifice would be worthwhile.
"If that happens, I believe it's been worth it because I think it could bring stability here for a long time," said General Odierno. "We'll have to wait and see if that happens or not."
Odierno said that even seven years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, it will be years before it is clear whether the effort has succeeded.
"We won't know what that outcome is for another five to 10 years because it will be how Iraq integrates itself regionally and internationally that will ultimately determine success," he said. "But we've given them that opportunity."
The general said the current process of forming Iraq's second democratically elected government will be a key element in determining the country's future success.
"The seating of the new government is really important - how that goes, what are the results of that? Does that create more stability or does that create instability? And we don't know yet," said General Odierno. "We have to get through that process. If we get through the seating of the government and we think it's now creating more stability, then I think we're getting closer to that tipping point."
The closeness of Iraq's parliamentary elections along with disputes over the qualifications of candidates and the counting of ballots have delayed the formation of a new government. But General Odierno indicated the problems will not affect plans to reduce U.S. troop levels from 95,000 to 50,000 by September.
At that time, the name of the U.S. effort will change from Operation Iraqi Freedom, as it has been known since it began in 2003, to Operation New Dawn - reflecting the end of the American combat role and the transition to Iraqi control. The remaining U.S. troops will be in what is called an "advise and assist" mode.
But General Odierno said there will not be a dramatic change in the day-to-day activities of U.S. troops on that date.
"The missions we're doing today are the same missions we'll do on 1 September, when Operation New Dawn starts," he said. "So there's no change in what we're doing on the ground. We are already into stability operations. So the difference is we're going to do it with 50,000 instead of 95,000. And as I've seen the development of the Iraqi security forces, I believe they are ready to take over more responsibility. And we will still be here to give them what I call 'psychological and physical support' to move forward."
General Odierno says he believes Iraqi forces will be ready to take combat responsibility by September, and for the full departure of U.S. troops by the end of next year. The general is expected to end his tour of duty during the next few months and take a senior U.S.-based command.