WASHINGTON, Nov. 5, 2010 — Two former top U.S. leaders in Iraq said today that even if America’s war there is over, its work is not yet done.
“The Iraqis believe that they … have the potential to be a leader in the Middle East,” said Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who left Iraq in September after two years in command of U.S. forces there. “They believe they have the educational systems, and the educated, to do that. They believe they have the natural resources to do that. But they need significant help, because those resources and the infrastructure associated with it have been ignored, really, since about 1980.”
Odierno, who now leads U.S. Joint Forces Command, spoke today along with Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2007 to 2009, at the World Affairs Councils of America national conference.
The general said a stable Iraq could help to assure security not only for the Middle East, but also for the United States.
“Iraq, as everyone knows, is in a very strategic location inside of the Middle East,” he said. “It’s a mixture of many different groups of people: Sunni, Shiia, Kurds. They have started to move toward a democratic process. They are interested in having an open economic environment inside the country. And once this starts to take hold … it could then create an atmosphere of more stability and an example for other nations.”
Odierno said Iraq had seen a decrease in violence over the last few years from all-out insurgency across the country to a “very small” insurgent group and al-Qaida in Iraq, a terrorist group he said still threatens the Iraqi people, though much less than it used to.
“The important piece is that we’ve now created a security force that is capable of dealing with this,” Odierno said. “Iraq is now about politics and about economic issues, … and I think that’s what is important as we look to the future.”
Odierno said most Americans don’t realize the effect on Iraq’s infrastructure over years of war – first with Iran, then against coalition forces during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 — followed by more than a decade of sanctions. Medical systems, the electrical power grid and other vital infrastructure decayed, he said.
“I call it societal devastation,” the general told the audience. “We underestimated this societal devastation when we went into Iraq, and that’s partly why it’s taken so darn long there, because we didn’t understand what would come out of that – part of it is an insurgency, [and] part of it is other people thinking they can take control.” Odierno said Iraqis believe the United States could fix its infrastructure if it chose to.
“And they think we’ve chosen not to fix it,” he said. “We’ve explained to them time and time again that we’ve done everything we can to help them fix their problem.”
Odierno said Iraq’s challenge now is to build the national strength and unity it needs to repair itself.
“The people of Iraq believe they need our help to do that. There is still a mistrust between elements inside of Iraq; they have not built up trust yet,” he said. “We work as an honest broker, someone who is there to help them work out their issues. … I think that’s the role we have to play moving forward.”
Crocker agreed that Iraq faces challenges now that it may not meet successfully without U.S. help.
“I was struck by two polls conducted Oct. 31,” Crocker said. “A poll here found that 70 percent of Americans were done with Iraq. ‘Time to get out, been too long, cost too much, too many other things to do.’
“A poll conducted in Iraq the same week had the same percentage – 70 percent of Iraqis – but it was 70 percent of Iraqis who thought it would be a terrible mistake for them if the [United States] decided to cut sling and head home,” he said.
For all the progress in Iraq, over the last three years in particular, the challenges remain immense, Crocker said.
“Sectarian tensions between Shiia and Sunnis have subsided; ethnic tensions between Kurds and Arabs, though, have increased,” he said. “Those tensions lie on a rickety foundation of unresolved institutional and constitutional issues: … the authorities of a regional government in Kurdistan versus a federal government in Baghdad versus provincial governments elsewhere.”
Crocker said while U.S. forces in Iraq have been successful in keeping a fragile peace among government factions, “the hard decisions still lie in front of Iraqis.”
“General Odierno has painted the picture of what Iraq could be: an enormous strategic asset for the region and the world,” Crocker said. “Iraq for the last half-century has really defined itself in the opposite manner — an adversary, a problem, an enemy.”
The United States now has an opportunity to make a lasting change in that relationship, Crocker said, with a security agreement and a strategic framework agreement in place to guide relations with Iraq.
“Here’s my biggest worry,” he said. “In America, as we look at other issues overseas like Afghanistan and Pakistan, as we look at our economy, that we are not thinking of ‘turning the page,’ as President [Barack] Obama said, [but rather] are thinking of closing the book in Iraq.
“If our thinking and our resources … go along these lines, I think the chances for long-term strategic success, built on the great work that General Odierno and his troops and a lot of brave civilians have already put into this, will diminish sharply,” Crocker added. “American interests will pay, and the Iraqi people will pay even more.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)