WASHINGTON, Sept. 1, 2010 — Combat operations may be over in Iraq, but the U.S. military and diplomatic endeavor remains, Vice President Joe Biden said today in Baghdad, reminding the international community of the significance of Operation New Dawn.
“Operation Iraqi Freedom is over, but American engagement with Iraq will continue with the mission that begins today,” Biden said. “We are ramping up our civilian and diplomatic efforts to strengthen Iraqi sovereignty, stability and self-reliance at the very same time we are drawing down combat forces.”
Biden spoke to troops at Camp Victory’s al Faw Palace near the Baghdad airport, just before a the U.S. Forces Iraq change-of-command ceremony. The ceremony coincided with the mission change from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn.
Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno relinquished his post as commander of all American troops in Iraq. Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III is now at the helm of the U.S. mission there, and he will likely command the unit through Dec. 31, 2011, when all U.S. forces are scheduled to be out of Iraq.
“As the name suggests, this ceremony not only marked the change of a command but the start of a different chapter in the relationship with Iraq,” Biden said at the ceremony. “Our remaining troops — I might add, as combat ready, if need be, as any in our military — will advise and assist Iraqi forces, support partnered counterterrorism operations and protect our military and civilian personnel as well as our infrastructure.”
Fewer than 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq until the mission officially ends next year. They will serve in an advise-and-assist role for Iraqi security forces, while civilian diplomats guide Iraq’s government.
“With our Iraqi partners, our hope is to be able to enhance the ties of trade and commerce, increase our cultural and educational exchanges, open consulates in Basra and Erbil, all to ensure that our engagement spans the breadth and length of this country,” the vice president said. “Our diplomats will support Iraq’s efforts to build strong ties with their neighbors and the wider world while working through the remaining obligations at the United Nations.”
Troop levels in Iraq peaked at around 170,000 in 2007 during the height of the troop surge. More than 4,400 U.S. troops, as well as another 300 coalition servicemembers have lost their lives to combat in Iraq.
“This change of mission, to state the obvious, would never have been possible without the resolve and tremendous sacrifice and competence of our military — the finest fighting force in the world, and I would argue the finest fighting force that ever has existed,” Biden said.
Biden also praised the efforts and vision of America’s top military leaders. He noted Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates’ willingness to continue his service under President Barack Obama. Biden also saluted the “wisdom, steady hand and leadership” of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan.
Petraeus is credited with much of the success in Iraq, having been the top commander there during the troop surge of 2007.
Biden recognized Odierno for more than four years of leading forces in Iraq. Odierno commanded Multinational Force Iraq and remained through its transition to U.S. Forces Iraq, serving as the top military commander there for two straight years. He also commanded the U.S. Army’s III Corps and Multinational Corps Iraq, serving in Iraq from Dec. 2006 to Feb. 2008. Odierno also served a year in Iraq in 2004–2005 as commander of the Army’s 4th Infantry Division.
“This man is not only a warrior but a diplomat in the best American tradition,” Biden said of Odierno. “General, four years and five months is an extraordinary sacrifice for both you and your family. I know how joyous your homecoming is going to be.”
More than 1.5 million U.S. troops deployed to Iraq since 2003, during which time they’d employed new tactics and technology to fight extremists and combat improvised explosive devices, Biden said.
“Our fighting men and women were given a mission in Iraq that was as complicated as any in our history,” the vice president said. “The high-speed invasion that toppled a tyrant became a grinding struggle against violent extremists.”
Biden also lauded Iraqi security forces, crediting their efforts throughout the past year in reducing violence in Iraq to its lowest levels since 2003.
Iraqi security forces are “increasingly ready to defend their citizens,” he said. “Because of their competence, we have … been able to transfer thousands of square miles of territory and hundreds of bases to Iraqi control.”
Governance in Iraq and transitioning security responsibilities proves that America can make good on its commitments, Biden said. Iraq and its citizens are on a path to a secure and prosperous future, he added.
“I pray that all those [Iraqis] scarred by this war in Iraq come to know the balm of lasting peace,” Biden said, acknowledging the Iraqis’ sacrifice.
Tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians and security forces have paid the ultimate sacrifice in their fight for sovereignty, the vice president said.
“I believe, I truly believe, that their darkest days are now behind them,” Biden said. “They have such a great opportunity as they step up to it.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)