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Petraeus Ends Momentous Command Tour in Iraq

The coalition commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has left his post after a momentous year and a half, during which he is widely credited with turning around the fight against a variety of insurgent groups. He will now become the overall commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Central Asia. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Baghdad.

At a ceremony crowded with senior military officers and ordinary soldiers, in one of Saddam Hussein's old palaces, the new commander, General Ray Odierno took command of 146,000 U.S. troops, and thousands of coalition elements, plus the job of training Iraqi's new forces and coordinating operations with them.

"Where chaos reigned, hope now prevails, and there is a growing belief in a bright and prosperous future here in this ancient land," Odierno said. "Under the exceptional leadership of General Petraeus, the men and women of Multinational Force, Iraq, along with our brave Iraqi partners, have created this hope, and you should be tremendously proud of all you've accomplished. However, we must realize that these gains are fragile and reversible, and our work here is far from done."

General Odierno was General Petraeus' deputy until earlier this year. Petraeus spoke about what has been done in Iraq during his tenure, and about the work that lies ahead.

"Above all to our troopers, thank you for your courage, determination, commitment, sacrifice and skill," Petraeus said. "Indeed, you and our Iraqi partners stemmed the tide of violence and helped this country step back from the brink of civil war. Clearly, innumerable challenges confront the new Iraq, and much hard work lies ahead. But the progress you and our Iraqi partners have achieved has been of enormous importance."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other officials flew all the way from Washington to attend the change of command.

"When General Petraeus took charge 19 months ago, darkness had descended on this land," Gates said. "Death was commonplace. Around the world, questions mounted whether a new strategy, or any strategy for that matter, could make a real difference. Slowly, but inexorably, the tide began to turn. Our enemies took a fearsome beating they will not soon forget. The situation here is much different today."

Secretary Gates says General Odierno's job will be somewhat different from his predecessor's. While General Petraeus had to turn the course of a conflict seemingly spinning out of control, the secretary says General Odierno now needs to consolidate stability, further increase the training of the Iraqi forces and speed the process of handing them control of their own country. Senior military officers warn not to go too fast and risk repeating the setbacks of two years ago, but they also make clear, as do U.S. and Iraqi politicians, that that is the direction they are going.