Odierno replaces Petraeus as commander of US military in Iraq

Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno takes over from General David Petraeus as commander of US forces in Iraq on Tuesday. Petraeus said Thursday that recent security gains in Iraq should not be taken for granted.


Sept 14  - Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno takes command of U.S. forces in Iraq on Tuesday. Following are some of the challenges that Odierno, a former deputy in Iraq to outgoing commander General David Petraeus, faces:

SECURITY - Violence has fallen to four-year lows, but there are many political and security challenges that could re-ignite bloodshed. These include provincial elections to be held either at the end of 2008 or in early 2009. These will be followed by national polls in late 2009. Tensions have been simmering between Arabs and Kurds over the disputed northern city of Kirkuk. Iraq's Shi'ite-led government will also soon take control of Sunni Arab tribal units that joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al Qaeda. Mutual suspicions are high and some analysts fear the tribal units, which include many former Sunni Arab insurgents, could turn their guns on the government if their demands are not met. Sunni Islamist al Qaeda has been significantly weakened but retains the ability to carry out large-scale attacks, especially in the northern provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh.

U.S. TROOP DRAWDOWNS - U.S. troop numbers could fall significantly under Odierno's command. The Pentagon will pull 8,000 troops out of Iraq by February, leaving 138,000 soldiers deployed there. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has promised to withdraw U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office if he wins the November election. Republican candidate John McCain is more cautious, arguing withdrawals should only be based on conditions on the ground. In either case, troop numbers will fall and Odierno will need to oversee a smooth transition, ensuring the handover of more responsibility to Iraqi forces does not leave a security vacuum.

PROVINCIAL CONTROL - U.S.-led forces have transferred control of security to Iraqi forces in 11 of the country's 18 provinces. Vital regions such as Baghdad should be handed over some time in 2009. Handing back provinces such as Baghdad and northern regions that have been stubbornly violent will significantly reduce the visibility and reach of U.S. forces. When provincial security control is transferred, U.S.-led forces withdraw from major population centres but can be called on to intervene in an emergency.

U.S.-IRAQI TIES -Odierno will work in a political environment vastly different from Petraeus. Iraq is much more assertive and confident in its security forces. Baghdad has also forced Washington to compromise on various points of a new security deal that will replace a U.N. mandate at the end of the year governing the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq. Odierno does have the advantage of having served as number 2 U.S. commander in Iraq from late 2006 until February 2008, which allowed him to build relations with all Iraq's top leaders.

RECONSTRUCTION -Iraq suffers from a chronic lack of services. Infrastructure is crumbling after decades of neglect, war and U.N. sanctions. Chronic instability and corruption have hindered reconstruction. Urgent work needs to be done to boost power generation, increase drinking water, treat sewage and fix roads. The country also needs to create jobs to drain the discontent that leads young men to join militant groups. Resolving these bread and butter challenges are just as important as patrolling the streets.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning