Petraeus hands over Iraq role

2008-09-16 12:04

Camp Victory, Iraq - US General Raymond Odierno took charge of US-led forces in Iraq on Tuesday from David Petraeus, the general credited with pulling the violence-wracked country back from all-out civil war.

Petraeus handed the command of the 146 000-strong US force after heading a controversial military "surge" strategy by President George W Bush that curbed the daily bloodletting in Iraq which killed tens of thousands of people.

The formal handover ceremony took place at a former Saddam Hussein era palace near Baghdad airport located at Camp Victory, a US military base.

But on the eve of the transfer of power, Odierno was given a powerful reminder of the task ahead when a series of bomb blasts killed at least 34 people.

Iraq was spiralling into an all-out civil war when Petraeus took over as commander in February 2007, almost four years after Saddam was toppled by US-led invading forces.

But since late last year violence has fallen significantly to a four-year low, and much of the credit has gone to the counter-insurgency strategies of the 55-year-old Petraeus.

Petraeus becomes the new chief of Central Command with responsibility for US troops from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, including the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

'I think he's played a historic role'

On Monday, Gates credited Petraeus's "brilliant strategy" and its implementation by US troops and field commanders for the success of the surge.

"I think he's played a historic role. There is just no two ways about it," he said.

Petraeus oversaw the surge, but it was his former deputy Odierno who first proposed it in December 2006 to a resistant Pentagon, setting the stage for what would become a pivotal turn in the unpopular war.

Odierno, a hulking artillery man criticised for running roughshod over civilians during his first tour to Iraq in 2003-2004, implemented the "surge" strategy as the corps commander from December 2006 to March 2008, which Gates said made him the right person to replace Petraeus.

Odierno carried out the detailed counter-insurgency campaign that poured US troops into Baghdad, cleared al-Qaeda insurgents from havens in communities surrounding the capital, and targeted Shi'ite extremists.

"Just as important as the surge was the change in our tactics, techniques and procedures that got us back out in the neighbourhoods," Odierno told reporters at the end of his previous tour in March.

The imposing, 1.99m tall Odierno will have his hands full as he takes command of the 146 000 troops on the ground.

Attention shifts toward Afghanistan

He takes charge at a time when, according to Gates, American forces are on a "mission in transition" as troop numbers shrink with more and more provinces being handed back to Iraqi control.

"There is no question we will still be engaged as we are, but the areas in which we are seriously engaged will I think continue to narrow," Gates said.

"And the challenge for General Odierno is how do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, and expand upon them even as the number of US forces are shrinking."

Iraq currently handles security in 11 of its 18 provinces with plans to take over a couple more by the end of the year. But the country still remains fragile.

Odierno has argued consistently against sharp cutbacks in troop levels in Iraq, which is negotiating a controversial security pact with Washington to determine troop levels after a UN mandate expires at the end of the year.

But the 146 000-strong US force will shrink by about 8 000 troops by January, when Bush leaves office. Pressure for further reductions is likely to intensify as attention shifts toward Afghanistan.