BAGHDAD — One day after President Barack Obama pledged that America would begin to "responsibly leave Iraq to its people," Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding U.S. general in Iraq, said that if the country held peaceful elections this year, the relative calm that had settled on Iraq would be "irreversible."
Iraq is to hold provincial elections Jan. 31 and national elections at the end of this year.
"If we get through this second set of elections — provincial and national elections — I think we'll be beyond that," he told McClatchy on Wednesday as he toured a sprawling marketplace in the poor Shiite Muslim district of New Baghdad. "We're slowly getting there now, but the proof will be in the elections. If we do that peaceful transfer of power, and there is peaceful conduct of legitimate, credible elections, I think that will be irreversible, frankly."
The area he toured once was completely controlled by Shiite militants who protected — and intimidated — residents.
Odierno spoke to McClatchy hours before Obama was to sit down with his top military advisers to discuss the U.S. military mission in Iraq and a likely escalation of the American military presence in Afghanistan.
However, because the Army and Marine Corps are stretched thin by the two wars, any significant U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan requires a drawdown in Iraq, which in turn requires both continued calm and improved Iraqi Security Forces.
The elections this month could turn violent, especially in Nineveh province, where a Kurdish-dominated council leads the mostly Sunni Muslim Arab population, and in Diyala province, where a mostly Shiite provincial council rules a largely Sunni Arab province. Already, candidates have complained that the government in Diyala has issued arrest warrants for Sunni candidates for political reasons.
"Now what'll be interesting to see is what happens after the elections — the 60 days after the elections — for those where the elections didn't turn out quite the way they wanted them to turn out," Odierno said. "So what will they do? We hope they will deal with it in a peaceful way, continue to try to work with the elected officials. Or will some try to resort to violence? That's what we're prepared for."
The current provincial councils largely excluded Sunnis from power in Diyala and Nineveh provinces. In Anbar, the largest Sunni political party, the Iraqi Islamic Party, could lose power to the Sunni tribal groups that are largely credited with suppressing the Sunni insurgency in the once-violent western province.
In the southern provinces, the most powerful Shiite party in Iraq, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is fighting to maintain power in most of the provinces it rules as the party of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki pushes into its territory.
Despite a small uptick in bombings this month in Baghdad, Odierno said that violence over the past eight weeks was at its lowest level since the summer of 2003, after the U.S.-led invasion.
Odierno also is dealing with a new era for American troops in Iraq under the new U.S.-Iraq security agreement, which took effect Jan. 1. The accord calls for American troops to withdraw from Iraqi cities by the end of this June and from Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.
Odierno visited the U.S. military base at Rustamiyah in northwestern Baghdad on Wednesday, which will revert to Iraq by March. It's unclear whether American combat troops will remain on Joint Security Stations with Iraqi Security Forces in cities after the June deadline.
"We're in the process of deciding how JSS's will work," he said. "Whatever decision it is, it will be made between us and the Iraqis."
One challenge is to ensure that the Iraqi Security Forces are psychologically ready, so they won't fall back on the U.S. military, Odierno said Wednesday in a briefing with soldiers.
"We don't want to move backwards," he said. "We need to make sure that they can take it over and that we're here to assist if they ask us."
Odierno has spent five of the past six Christmases in Iraq, and he could be the commanding general who metaphorically turns out the lights on the U.S. war in Iraq.
"I think there is a potential here for us to end this thing, for Iraq to be a strategic partner of the United States and Iraq to be a stabilizing influence in the region," he said.
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