BAGHDAD - Army Gen. Ray Odierno took command of American troops here yesterday with words that made clear he wants the Iraqis to take a bigger role in security and move forward with political progress as pressure mounts on U.S. forces to leave the country.
In comments shortly after receiving command from his predecessor and former boss, Gen. David H. Petraeus, Odierno emphasized the need for Iraq's government to hold provincial elections this year and use its military and police to sustain security gains made since Petraeus' arrival in February 2007.
U.S. troops will be there to help, Odierno said. But he added: "We must do this with our Iraqi partners out front, in the lead." Petraeus, credited with overseeing a dramatic decline in Iraq's violence, left to take charge of U.S. Central Command, a job that requires him to balance demands for more troops in Afghanistan with the need to leave enough in Iraq to prevent a resurgence of violence. President Bush plans to withdraw 8,000 of the 146,000 American forces in Iraq by February, and the Iraqi government wants U.S. officials to agree to a 2011 date for a total withdrawal.
But senior military officials warn against making the same mistake as in 2005, when Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who preceded Petraeus here, tried to shift responsibilities to Iraqi forces who were not ready to take over. Security gains quickly collapsed, and by the time Petraeus arrived, scores of people were being killed each day in sectarian violence.
Nineteen months after Casey's exit, attacks on U.S. and Iraqi forces, and on civilians, have declined by about 80 percent, according to the U.S. military. But seven of Iraq's 18 provinces have yet to be handed over to Iraqi control, and speaker after speaker yesterday described the current relative stability as fragile and reversible.
"Caution should be the order of the day," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, during a handover ceremony held beneath a massive chandelier in the rotunda of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.
Odierno, on his third deployment to Iraq, returns after just seven months away.