The new American operational commander in Iraq said Sunday that even with the additional American troops likely to be deployed in Baghdad under President Bush’s new war strategy it might take another “two or three years” for American and Iraqi forces to gain the upper hand in the war.
The commander, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, assumed day-to-day control of war operations last month in the first step of a makeover of the American military hierarchy here. In his first lengthy meeting with reporters, General Odierno, 52, struck a cautious note about American prospects, saying much will depend on whether commanders can show enough progress to stem eroding support in the United States for the war.
“I believe the American people, if they feel we are making progress, they will have the patience,” he said. But right now, he added, “I think the frustration is that they think we are not making progress.”
The general laid out a plan to make an impact in Baghdad with the additional troops. Several other military plans since the fall of Baghdad in 2003 have faltered. He said he wanted the new American units, working with three additional Iraqi combat brigades that Iraqi officials say will be deployed in the capital, to move back into the city’s toughest neighborhoods and show that they can “protect the people,” which he said coalition forces had previously failed to do.
General Odierno contrasted his approach with the last effort to secure Baghdad, effectively abandoned for lack of enough Iraqi troops last fall.
Then, American troops conducted house-to-house clearing operations before moving on to other neighborhoods, leaving the holding phase of the operation to Iraqi troops, who failed to control the areas and forced Americans to return. This time, the general said, American troops would remain in the cleared areas “24/7,” to stiffen Iraqi resolve and build confidence among residents that they would be treated evenhandedly.
Equally important, he said, coalition troops would move into both Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. That, too, would break with the pattern set last fall, when American troops concentrated on known Sunni insurgent strongholds, especially Dora, in southwest Baghdad. This time, the general said, it was crucial the security plan be evenhanded. “We have to have a believable approach, of going after Sunni and Shia extremists,” he said.
Going into Shiite neighborhoods, particularly the sprawling working-class district of Sadr City, the base for the powerful Mahdi Army militia that has spawned Shiite death squads, will risk new strains in the relationship between American commanders and the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Sunni leaders and, increasingly, American commanders here have accused Mr. Maliki of a strong Shiite bias. The criticism has intensified since the sectarian taunting by Shiite guards at the hanging nine days ago of Iraq’s ousted dictator, Saddam Hussein, an event personally planned by Mr. Maliki.
General Odierno said he envisaged making enough of a difference within three or four months of the new deployments to move to a second phase of the new plan, pulling American troops back to the periphery of Baghdad and leaving Iraqi forces to carry on the fight in the capital. He said he hoped to be able to do that by August or September, but with American troops prepared to move back into the capital rapidly if commanders conclude that the pullback was “a miscalculation.”
Meeting American reporters over lunch at a villa in the grounds of one of Mr. Hussein’s former palaces, General Odierno was careful not to divulge details of Mr. Bush’s new war plan, which the president is expected to make public in coming days, perhaps on Wednesday.
But much of the Bush plan has been leaked, including an influx of as many as 20,000 additional combat troops to Baghdad. Their arrival would be staged over coming months as American commanders watch to see whether the Iraqis, who made troop commitments before that they have not fulfilled, meet their part of the deal.
Sending up to five additional combat brigades, as suggested by administration officials in Washington who have discussed the plan with reporters, would push the American force in Iraq to at least 160,000 troops, close to the levels involved in the invasion nearly four years ago.
This so-called surge would constitute an abrupt about-face in American strategy, which has aimed in the past two years for a drawdown of American troops as Iraqi forces take on greater responsibility for the war.
General Odierno, the second-ranking American commander here, will be joined in Baghdad in coming weeks by the new overall commander chosen by Mr. Bush, Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who will be promoted to full general when he succeeds Gen. George W. Casey Jr., top commander in Iraq for the past two-and-a-half years. The recasting of the war command will also include a new top officer at the Central Command, with overall responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That post will go to Adm. William J. Fallon, a Navy officer who is now the American commander in the Pacific. The appointments of Admiral Fallon and General Petraeus are expected to be approved by the Senate.
Generals Petraeus and Odierno will assume control in Iraq at a critical juncture, with additional American troops assuming Mr. Bush’s plan is not blocked by Democratic opponents in Congress and the burden of showing they can find ways of turning the worsening situation around that escaped General Casey and Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, the operational commander who preceded General Odierno. General Casey and General Chiarelli have been wary of American troop increases, saying the key to prevailing here is to have Iraqis take over, not to encourage them to shelter behind enhanced American combat power.
The plans laid out by General Odierno appeared aimed at meeting several goals in what American commanders here say has become a highly complex interplay of American and Iraqi politics, in addition to stabilizing a situation that has threatened to spiral out of control as Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis move ever closer to all-out civil war.
The commanders have acknowledged privately that the new Bush plan is almost certain to represent a last-chance option for persuading Americans that it is worth persisting with the heavy burdens of the war, with more than 3,000 American troops dead and overall costs that are nearing $450 billion.
General Odierno said one American goal would be to satisfy Iraqi leaders’ insistence that American commanders transfer to them as quickly as possible overall responsibility for the war.
One thorny issue for the Bush administration has been that Iraqi leaders, facing the highest levels of violence in the war and struggling with weaknesses in their forces, have been wary of increasing American troop levels because of the impediment that might pose to the Iraqis taking fuller control of events here.
General Odierno spoke of the mood in the United States as another crucial factor. He served a year here in 2003 and 2004 as commander of the Fourth Infantry Division, during which his troops took credit for capturing Mr. Hussein. But he spent the last two years in Washington, the most recent 12 months as military adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
He said he understood the failing confidence among Americans, including some of those who had lost sons and daughters here, that the war was worthwhile. The general’s own son, Capt. Anthony Odierno, a 28-year-old West Point graduate, lost an arm when a bomb detonated during a patrol in Baghdad in 2004.
As a father as well as a commander, the general said, he did not doubt the sacrifices had been justified. “I believe it’s worth it,” he said.
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company