September 30, 2009 — MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Congressional hearings on the war in Iraq used to be top draws in Washington, with packed committee rooms, live media coverage. Well, not so today when General Ray Odierno, the top U.S. general in Iraq, was on Capitol Hill. He testified before the House Armed Services Committee for at least a few members who bothered to show up.
NPR's JJ Sutherland was watching.
JJ SUTHERLAND: General Odierno did have important news to report. He's accelerating the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, 4,000 of them in October. And that's because things in Iraq, he says, are going well enough.
General RAY ODIERNO (Commander, Multi-National Forces): The combined sustained efforts of U.S. and Iraqi security forces, coupled with the efforts of our civilian partners, have reduced security incidents and attacks of all types to levels on par with the summer of 2003.
Iraqi security forces, coupled with the efforts of our civilian partners, have reduced security incidents and attacks of all types to levels on par with the summer of 2003.
SUTHERLAND: The change in atmosphere, Odierno testified, is palpable.
Gen. ODIERNO: You can honestly feel a difference amongst the people in Baghdad and around the large majority of Iraq.
Mr. TOM RICKS (Author): I think as always, I find the U.S. government somewhat more optimistic about Iraq than I am.
SUTHERLAND: That's Tom Ricks. He is the author of two books on Iraq. He covered the conflict for the Washington Post.
Mr. RICKS: All the basic issues that faced Iraq before the surge and that led to a civil war are still there. None of them have been resolved. How do you share oil revenue? What's the relationship between Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd? Will Iraq have a strong central government or be a weak confederation?
SUTHERLAND: Odierno did acknowledge problems: two bombings in Baghdad last month that killed about 100 people between them, as well as ongoing violence in the city of Mosul.
Gen. ODIERNO: We have to ensure that we don't take enough risk where ethno-sectarian violence is able to continue, for example over Arab-Kurd tensions or that we don't allow al-Qaida and some of the outside external influences by Iran and others to cause violence inside of Iraq that will cause the Iraqi political system to fall. Those are the risks.
SUTHERLAND: But, Odierno said, despite those concerns, he plans to cut more troops this year, and then after Iraqi elections in January, tens of thousands more, so that by the end of next summer, there will only be 50,000 American forces in the country and all of them trainers instead of combat forces.
Now, U.S. troops are acting as more of an honest broker between the rival factions in Iraq rather than as war fighters. That's how Peter Mansoor sees it. He's a professor at Ohio State and a former brigade commander in Iraq.
Professor PETER MANSOOR (Military history, Ohio State University): The psychological dynamic of the U.S. presence is more important than the physical dynamic, and therefore a withdrawal of several thousand troops this year, followed by tens of thousands next year is possible provided that the Iraqi political progress continues.
SUTHERLAND: Those tens of thousands of troops in Iraq are needed elsewhere. General Stanley McChrystal, the top general in Afghanistan, says he needs up to 40,000 more troops there, and these days, it's Afghanistan after all that's getting all the attention.
Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak was one of the few congressmen on the committee to show up today.
Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): Attention in Washington, D.C., tends to be on the crisis of the moment. If that had been General McChrystal, you would have seen that room packed.
SUTHERLAND: Ignoring Iraq, whether at a congressional hearing or on the ground is a mistake says Tom Ricks. The reason: Iraq and Afghanistan are linked.
Mr. RICKS: The administration, yes, is trying to focus its attention on Afghanistan but at the risk of not paying enough attention to Iraq.
SUTHERLAND: Which means that if the situation in Iraq deteriorates again, the U.S. will have to keep troops there.
Mr. RICKS: Which means it won't have the troops it needs for Afghanistan. This is a horrible situation to get into.
SUTHERLAND: But that's the situation the country is in, despite General Odierno's guardedly optimistic assessment today.
JJ Sutherland, NPR News, Washington.