By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Jan. 1, 2010 - Progress in Iraq will continue as American forces draw down in the next year, U.S. commanders in Iraq said today. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, commander of U.S. Forces Iraq, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, spoke about current conditions in Iraq during a press conference in Baghdad.
Odierno said December marked the first month since the war started in 2003 with no U.S. battle casualties. "We had three non-battle deaths, but we had zero battle deaths due to combat operations," he said.
Iraqi forces are doing well in dealing with internal threats, but they still need capacity to defend the country from external threats. "We think that will take a couple more years yet," Odierno said.
U.S. forces continue to work with Iraqi naval, land and air forces to beef up the capabilities. "Much of the modernization that will continue, (and) much of the equipment that we leave behind, will be focused on the external (defense) piece," Odierno said. U.S. trainers will continue their mission in the nation.
Odierno dispelled a number of rumors and conspiracy theories. He said the United States is not holding any conferences with members of the Baathist party – Saddam Hussein's former ruling party.
"What we do is support the government of Iraq's reconciliation program," he said. "We don't reconcile with elements, only the government of Iraq can reconcile with these elements. They have to choose based on the threat who they reconcile with. We can support (the government) if asked, but that's the only time we will do that."
Odierno also called for Syria to better seal the border. While the Syrian government is not involved in the attacks in Iraq, foreign fighters and explosives still move through the country. "We would like to see Syria do more to stop these fighters and suicide bombers from coming into Iraq," he said.
The recent bombings in Baghdad point to al-Qaida hiring out members of the Baathist party to work with them, Odierno said.
"It's a statement on the state of these organizations," he said. "The size of al-Qaida has been reduced significantly, they can no longer conduct the attacks independently, they can only do it with the help of others. Baathist elements are no longer capable of operating independently as well, so the successes we've had have forced them to work together."
Many of those planting bombs or launching attacks are doing it solely for the money. Odierno called these terrorists opportunists. Iraqi security forces and U.S. forces have been working to eliminate the funds al-Qaida can raise to pay these people.
The U.S. commander in Iraq is concerned about recent attacks aimed at provincial and tribal leaders in the country. A recent attack targeted Anbar governor Qasim al Fahdawi, who was wounded. The attacks are attempts to de-legitimize the government ahead of the March elections, Odierno said.
"(The enemy) do not want the elections to go ahead, they do not want them to be successful," he said. "Obviously, we will work with Iraqi security forces to do an assessment of why this happened. It's not a sign of crumbling security. What it says is there are still groups capable of launching these attacks."
Both Odierno and Petraeus said they they are confident that Iraqi security forces are up to the challenge that the March 7 national election poses. The elections are important, and al-Qaida is attacking to disrupt and de-legitimize the government.
"They are focused on the elections, because they know if the elections move forward and we have a peaceful transition of government, that's going to become almost impossible for them to overthrow the state that's been established in Iraq," Odierno said.
Petraeus said the delay in the Iraqi elections – originally set for January and now March 7 – will have no impact on the U.S. withdrawal.
"We're going to accelerate the transition in one area – Anbar province," Petraeus said. The drawdown comes at the same time that 30,000 more American forces are set to surge in Afghanistan.