BAGHDAD (Reuters) – General Ray Odierno took command of U.S.-led forces in Iraq on Tuesday, faced with the challenge of ensuring security gains do not unravel at a time when American troop levels are being reduced.
Odierno replaced General David Petraeus at a ceremony presided over by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said the two generals had formed an “incredible team” during the deployment of 30,000 extra U.S. troops to Iraq last year.
The towering, shaven-headed Odierno served as the number 2 U.S. commander in Iraq for 15 months until February.
“He (Odierno) knows that we are at a pivotal moment — where progress remains fragile and caution should be the order of the day,” Gates said in the ornate halls of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces that is now part of a giant U.S. military base.
While violence has hit four-year lows in Iraq, militants have still been able to pull off large-scale attacks.
A female suicide bomber killed 22 people at a dinner celebration for police in Diyala province on Monday, hours after two car bombs killed 12 people in the capital Baghdad.
Odierno and Petraeus came together last year to implement a new counter-insurgency strategy that helped drive violence down, allowing Iraq to begin seeking foreign investment to rebuild after decades of war and U.N. sanctions.
Petraeus leaves behind a very different Iraq from the one he faced when he took over in February 2007, when Iraq was on the brink of all-out civil.
“Slowly, but inexorably, the tide began to turn. Our enemies took a fearsome beating they will not soon forget,” said Gates.
But Odierno will still face numerous challenges.
On the security front, these include making sure Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, already significantly weakened, remains on its knees and unable to incite sectarian bloodshed.
Iraq is expected to hold provincial elections either at the end of 2008 or in early 2009. These will be followed by national polls in late 2009.
Both could be a flashpoint for tensions between Arabs and Kurds with territorial disputes in the north as well as rival Shi’ite factions vying for dominance in the south, home to most of Iraq’s vital oil reserves.
Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government will also soon take control of Sunni Arab tribal units that joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al Qaeda. Some analysts fear the tribal units, which include many former Sunni Arab insurgents, could turn their guns on the government if their demands are not met.
Gates lauded Petraeus in his speech at the ceremony.
“You … dealt the enemies of the United States and Iraq a tremendous, if not mortal, blow. History will regard you as one of our nation’s great battle captains,” Gates said.
From October, Petraeus will head the U.S. Central Command, the headquarters overseeing operations in the Middle East and beyond, including the war in Afghanistan.
The Pentagon will pull 8,000 troops out of Iraq by February, leaving 138,000 soldiers deployed there. All five extra combat brigades sent to Iraq last year completed their withdrawal in July and have not been replaced.
Despite the drop in overall violence in Iraq, the Bush administration has taken a cautious approach to troop cuts and any decision on a major withdrawal will be left to the next U.S. president, who takes office in January.
Officials and analysts say other factors played a big role in reducing violence in Iraq, including a decision by former Sunni Arab insurgents to turn against al Qaeda and a ceasefire imposed by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on his Mehdi militia.