Pentagon chief in Iraq to transfer war command

United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates flew into Baghdad on Monday, preparing to hand command of the war in Iraq to a new general charged with maintaining better security while US troop numbers fall.

Gates is making his eighth visit to Iraq since he took over at the Pentagon in December 2006.

On Tuesday he will preside over a ceremony to transfer command of US-led forces in Iraq to Lieutenant-General Ray Odierno from General David Petraeus, whose term was marked by the deployment of 30 000 extra US troops and a substantial decline in violence.

”The challenge, I think, for General Odierno is: How do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, expand upon them, even as the numbers of US forces are shrinking,” Gates told reporters on his plane.

Odierno, who served as the number two US commander in Iraq for 15 months until February, will be promoted to full general on Tuesday.

President George Bush last week announced that around 8 000 US troops would withdraw from Iraq by early next year, leaving around 138 000 in the country.

Many troops who were scheduled to replace those departing from Iraq will now head to Afghanistan, where insurgent violence has grown dramatically in the past two years.

Widely criticised for his handling of the first years of the Iraq war, Bush ordered a shakeup in late 2006 and early 2007, replacing Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and picking media-savvy intellectual Petraeus as his new war commander.

Since then, violence in Iraq has declined to its lowest level in more than four years but the administration has taken a cautious approach to troop cuts and any decision on a major withdrawal will be left to the next US president, who takes office in January.

Challenges remain
Gates said it was important Iraqis move forward with reconciliation between Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds, that the government provide more services to its people and that US and Iraqi forces maintain pressure on Sunni Islamist al-Qaeda militants and Shi’ite extremist militias.

”There’s still people who would like to see this fail and the important thing will be to keep the pressure on all of them,” he said.

Gates said last week he believed the Iraq war was entering its ”endgame”, now that extra US troops have departed and Iraqi forces are taking more responsibility.

The United States has handed primary responsibility for security to Iraqi forces in 11 of 18 provinces and Gates said he expected ”a couple” more to be transferred by the end of 2008.

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

Washington and Baghdad are close to finalising a security pact that will govern the presence of US forces in Iraq when a United Nations mandate expires at the end of the year.

US officials have lauded the surge of American forces, and an emphasis under Petraeus on troops getting into Iraqi communities to protect them, as a major reason for the decline in violence.

Officials and analysts say other factors played a big role, such as a decision by former Sunni Arab insurgents to turn against al-Qaeda and a ceasefire imposed by Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on his Mehdi Army militia.

Gates offered high praise for Petraeus, who took over in Baghdad in February 2007 and will become the top commander for the Middle East.

”I think he’s played a historic role,” Gates said, adding more junior commanders across Iraq had also been vital.

”General Petraeus is clearly the hero of the hour but I think all of us would say there are an awful lot of heroes working for him that have actually made this happen,” he said. – Reuters

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