The commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq says he is accelerating the drawdown of American troops, with 4,000 more coming out ahead of schedule by the end of October. General Ray Odierno spoke to the Armed Services Committee of the House of Representatives Wednesday.
General Odierno says the coalition effort in Iraq is "in reach of our goals." He described a situation in which attacks and casualties are down sharply, and he said life has "returned to normal" in many parts of the country. As a result, he is accelerating the drawdown of U.S. forces.
"As we go forward we will thin our lines across Iraq in order to reduce the risk and sustain stability through a deliberate transition of our responsibilities to the Iraqi security forces," he said.
The U.S. troop level in Iraq has already been cut by 20,000 this year, to about 122,000.
But the general said he will maintain a substantial force until after the Iraqi election in January to be sure the transition to a new government does not become violent. Still, he said the United States will meet the target of having not more than 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by next August.
Although he cites much progress in the last two years, General Odierno says several "drivers of instability" remain, including disagreements over sharing oil revenues, the still insufficient capabilities of the Iraqi government and factional struggles, including the Arab-Kurd dispute. In addition, General Odierno says al-Qaida in Iraq has not been completely defeated, and is trying to ignite another outbreak of sectarian violence.
"Its capabilities are degraded. But they're still a bit resilient and they still are able to conduct operations," he added.
He is particularly concerned about al-Qaida's ability to conduct large-scale attacks against civilians, like the bombing in August in Baghdad that killed more than 75 people.
"We continue to see these attacks against innocent civilians absolutely mean nothing to the outcome. And all it does is kill innocent people. And it's frustrating to us. And it's frustrating to the Iraqis. And that's what we're trying to stop inside of Iraq now," he said.
General Odierno says Iraqi forces continue to need help fighting al-Qaida and other violent groups, particularly with logistics and supply issues. But he says their capabilities are growing.
The general also expressed concern about what he sees as continuing meddling in Iraq by Iranian operatives.
"Unfortunately, we still see some malign intent with Iran as we continue to see training conducted in Iran of Iranian surrogates that now then come back into Iraq," said Odierno. "We still continue to uncover large caches of rockets, rails to shoot rockets and some explosively formed projectiles that are made in Iran. We continue to see potential interference in the political process inside of Iraq," he added.
General Odierno says Iraqi forces have been effective at finding and defeating Iranian-supported elements, particularly in the south.
The general predicted that all U.S. forces will be out of Iraq, as promised, by the end of 2011, but he told the members of Congress Iraq will still need U.S. support well beyond that date, as it works to stabilize its democracy and fully secure the country.