Mullen Notes Iraq’s Progress from ‘Desperate’ Situation

BAGHDAD, Sept. 1, 2010 — On his way here for the change of com­mand for U.S. forces and to see the U.S. com­bat mis­sion offi­cial­ly trans­fer to the civil­ian-led Oper­a­tion New Dawn in cer­e­monies here today, the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff paused to take stock of the progress he’s seen in Iraq since he took office in 2007.

“One of the things that I think we have a ten­den­cy to for­get is how des­per­ate we were in that fight in the pre-surge [peri­od],” Navy Adm. Mike Mullen told reporters dur­ing the first trav­el leg of the trip that brought him here for today’s events. “And I cer­tain­ly don’t take for grant­ed the progress that we’ve made.” 

This year alone, the chair­man said, U.S. troop strength in Iraq dropped by 70,000.

“We’ve closed some 500 bases, and … we’ve moved 38,000 pieces of rolling stock out of Iraq,” Mullen said. “When I was there a month ago, I got into a heli­copter at the air­port to fly over to Camp Vic­to­ry, and I was just stunned at the clean­li­ness. I was just stunned that there was so much stuff that was­n’t there that had been there for every trip I’d been on since 2004. 

“I was tied up in a round­about in down­town Bagh­dad in what I would call some ver­sion of nor­mal traf­fic,” he con­tin­ued. “We’ve still got a lot of chal­lenges in Iraq, but to go there for this [event] is significant.” 

Mullen said U.S. and Iraqi forces and the U.S. Embassy team here share in the cred­it for that progress, along with Army Gen. Ray­mond T. Odier­no, who relin­quish­es com­mand of U.S. Forces Iraq today to Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III

“I’ve been very impressed, par­tic­u­lar­ly over the last year, with the accom­plish­ments of the Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces,” the chair­man said. “They’ve led now for many, many months. … We’ve tak­en a lot of al-Qai­da lead­er­ship off the streets in Iraq, [and] they have led those operations.” 

Mullen said his biggest con­cern now is the need for Iraqi polit­i­cal lead­ers to fin­ish work­ing out their dif­fer­ences and seat a new government. 

“In one way, it’s pos­i­tive that the biggest prob­lems in Iraq are polit­i­cal, because cer­tain­ly two or three years ago, they weren’t,” he said. “There’s a lot of effort going into stand­ing this gov­ern­ment up, and I am hope­ful that that will hap­pen in the near future.” 

The over­all lev­el of vio­lence in Iraq is at its low­est lev­el since 2003, the chair­man not­ed. Some high-pro­file attacks have con­tin­ued, he added, “all of which are a con­cern, but none of which, from every­thing I can see, come any­where close to desta­bi­liz­ing the gov­ern­ment or the country.” 

“So I have con­fi­dence in where we are, and in [Iraq’s] abil­i­ty to with­stand the chal­lenges, includ­ing secu­ri­ty, that are still there,” he said. 

Mullen mapped out what awaits the few­er than 50,000 U.S. troops who remain in Iraq. 

“We’re now clear­ly in an ‘advise and assist’ role, and will cer­tain­ly sup­port the Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces in selec­tive, tar­get­ed coun­tert­er­ror­ist oper­a­tions,” he said. The mis­sion also includes pro­tect­ing Amer­i­cans in Iraq, he added. 

“We’ve got a large ‘foot­print’ of civil­ians,” the admi­ral explained. “We’ve got a very detailed tran­si­tion plan where our State Depart­ment, most­ly, and our embassy take over the lead for the mis­sion, and [we’ll] sup­port them and con­tin­ue in the execution.” 

With all U.S. troops sched­uled to be out of Iraq by the end of next year, Mullen said, the abil­i­ty to work out the details of any poten­tial longer-term strate­gic part­ner­ship between the Unit­ed States and Iraq must wait until a new Iraqi gov­ern­ment is in place. Today’s tran­si­tion, he added, marks a sig­nif­i­cant point in the U.S. time­line in Iraq. 

“Through enor­mous sac­ri­fices, we have been out in front and led, then co-led, then trained and enabled the Iraqi secu­ri­ty forces – some 660,000 now — to lead and to pro­vide for their own secu­ri­ty,” Mullen said. “Hav­ing the secu­ri­ty envi­ron­ment that exists right now has enabled them to have two sets of elec­tions and to stand up a gov­ern­ment elect­ed by the peo­ple. That’s obvi­ous­ly what they’re doing right now. 

“Under­pin­ning this is great poten­tial on the eco­nom­ic side,” he con­tin­ued, “just because of the resources that they have.” 

Mullen said he agrees with Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, now in charge of oper­a­tions in Afghanistan, who’d pre­vi­ous­ly com­mand­ed U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand as well as coali­tion forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, that coun­terin­sur­gency wars don’t have a defin­able end. 

“We’re not liv­ing in a time where you cross the goal line, you have the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny and you come home to the tick­er­tape parades,” the chair­man said. “Those are the images of wars past, and we’re just not in those kinds of wars right now. That said, when you look at where we were two or three years ago in Iraq ver­sus where we are now, it’s night and day. 

“There are many pos­si­bil­i­ties for the 26 mil­lion peo­ple who live in Iraq,” he added, “and those pos­si­bil­i­ties are now up to them. That was­n’t the case before.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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