Will Ray Odierno Make Iraq Safe?,Will U.S. Leave

November 23, 2008

a_wodiernoWhen Ray Odierno took over the top military post in Iraq from General David Petraeus in September, there was a lot of hand-wringing among folk at defense think tanks in Washington worried that he was the wrong man for the job. They pointed to Odierno’s reputation from his first tour in Iraq, in 2003, as a heavy-handed division commander who had neither a grasp of the subtleties of fighting an insurgency nor the political acumen to sell his ideas back home. Some correspondents who covered Iraq in the months after the fall of Saddam Hussein also came away with that opinion; in his best-selling 2006 book, Fiasco, Washington Post correspondent Thomas E. Ricks suggested that Odierno’s tough tactics in the Sunni Triangle had helped fuel the insurgency. Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division, while hunting down Saddam and fighting off the remnants of his irregular fedayeen forces, flattened houses said to have been used by fighters and launched artillery volleys at insurgents hiding amid the civilian population.

Odierno’s physique and personality contributed to his image as a military bull in a china shop . The general is 6 ft. 5 in. (2 m) and 285 lb. (130 kg); he played tight end at West Point. A native of Rockaway, N.J. (pop. 6,000), he speaks with the occasional New Jersey grumble, and bluntly. Odierno usually suffers in comparisons with the suave, diplomatic Petraeus. As a senior commander in Iraq told TIME in 2006, “If Dave is polish, Ray is spit.”

But the doubters didn’t take into account the evolution of Odierno’s thinking during his second tour in Iraq, in 2006, when he helped develop the military’s surge strategy–which contributed hugely to the reduction of violence in much of the country. Petraeus sold Washington on the surge, but it was Odierno who gave him something to sell. “It is clear that by late 2006, he was as important as Petraeus, if not more important, because he was the guy on the ground,” says Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.

The success of the surge has led to a reassessment of Odierno, 54. Retired General Jack Keane, who consulted closely with Odierno on the surge in late 2006, was so impressed that he later used his powerful connections in the Administration to push for promoting Odierno to Petraeus’ job. “He went through a complete metamorphosis,” says Keane. “He educated himself and became the pre-eminent operational commander we have in conducting irregular warfare.”

Odierno concedes that his thinking has evolved. “I’d be wrong if I said I didn’t learn,” he says. He studied up on tribal relationships, Iraqi politics and microeconomics. But he rejects as “grossly exaggerated” the idea that he had some revelation and suddenly embraced counterinsurgency doctrine. He points out that some of the tactics he employed in 2003 have made a comeback. As commander of the 4th Infantry Division, despite orders to pull back, he kept small outposts in neighborhoods among the residents, ensuring better surveillance and quick response to insurgent attacks, which helped him shut down the fedayeen on Saddam’s home turf. The outposts have become one of the cornerstones of the surge strategy.

In implementing the surge, Odierno pushed five new brigades into Baghdad’s neighborhoods and gave them surveillance equipment like aerial drones, ground sensors and blimps with closed-circuit cameras, allowing each small outpost to watch over many city blocks. He also worked with the Iraqi forces to bring National Police and Iraqi army soldiers into Baghdad from all over the country. Displaying political dexterity, he persuaded a nervous Iraqi government to sign on to the Sons of Iraq program, which turned thousands of insurgents into neighborhood-watch groups. If Petraeus gets credit for ushering in the surge, it was Odierno who “made it work,” says Lieut. General Nasier Abadi, deputy chief of staff of the Iraqi joint forces.

These days, Odierno and his staff are brainstorming over what the next phase of U.S. military presence in Iraq will look like. A tough battle is still being fought in Mosul and Diyala province against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Iran continues to wage a hot and cold war for influence over the future of Iraq. Militant groups are trying to regain footholds around Baghdad. And Odierno’s political skills have been put to the test in negotiations over a status-of-forces agreement with the Iraqi government, which the Iraqi Cabinet endorsed on Nov. 16. Under the terms of the agreement, all U.S. forces will leave Iraq by the end of 2011. (During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama called for pulling out all combat brigades by May 2010.)

The agreement reflects a consensus in Baghdad and Washington that the U.S. footprint must be greatly reduced. Abadi, the Iraqi general, would like to have U.S. forces backstopping his men. But he believes the worst is over. Odierno, for his part, is determined that troop withdrawals be done in a “deliberate way” so as not to give up the gains of the past year.

He knows what’s at stake and has seen firsthand the personal toll of the war. Odierno’s son Tony lost his left arm when a rocket-propelled grenade blew up his humvee in Baghdad in 2004. The general says his son’s injury has given him a bond with other parents who have had a child injured in combat. “I understand,” he says, “what the costs of this fight are.”

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