WASHINGTON – The top American commander in Iraq on Wednesday warned Congress against losing sight of that nation as a key Mideast ally, even as safer conditions have let him send home more U.S. troops faster than expected.
Army Gen. Ray Odierno did not directly address the impact that the is having on his mission as he makes sure Iraq's military and political systems are stable enough to stand alone by the time U.S. forces leave at the end of 2011.
But Afghanistan was on the minds of lawmakers on the House Armed Services Committee who wanted to know whether U.S. troops and equipment were being shifted there.
"As you know, our military has been greatly stressed over the past several years," said the committee's chairman,, D-Mo., "And they're potentially facing increased demand for troops in Afghanistan."
The United States invaded Iraq in 2003 — about 18 months after forces were sent to Afghanistan to root out al-Qaida. Iraq was the 's focal point for most of the Bush administration, leaving the public view of Afghanistan largely in the dark.
But President Barack Obama has put the focus back on Afghanistan, risking making Iraq the forgotten war.
Odierno sought to not let that happen, reminding lawmakers that Iraq, with its fledgling democracy, could be a key U.S. partner in the Mideast given its location and natural resources, like oil.
"It's important for us to stay engaged," Odierno told the House panel. "We have spent a lot of money. We have spent a lot of personal sacrifices inside Iraq. And security is headed in the right direction. We don't want to lose sight of that."
At the hearing, Odierno announced that he will send home about 4,000 additional troops by the end of October, mostly the result of better security in the once insurgent-riddled Anbar Province west of Baghdad. He said that's "a bit faster than we originally planned."
He said there are about 124,000 U.S. troops currently in Iraq, and he expects to meet Obama's deadline of sending home all but 50,000 by September 2010 as the military ends its combat mission there.
Additionally, Odierno estimated about 150,000 pieces of U.S. equipment have been shipped out of Iraq, freeing it up to be sent to Afghanistan. He said the U.S. has closed about 200 bases in Iraq so far.
But Iraq's anticipated Jan. 16 elections will serve as a gut check for security there. Odierno said it will be the first elections run solely by Iraqis, and that any violence surrounding it probably will happen within the first 60 days after the vote.
He also called the long-standing tensions between Arabs and's oil-rich but volatile northern region the largest security threat to the fragile country.
Try as he might to remain focused on Iraq, Odierno had a hard time resisting being drawn into the debate that has consumed Washington over whether Obama should order more troops to Afghanistan.
"What lessons learned would you like to see brought over to Afghanistan from Iraq?" asked Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
Odierno said he has been too consumed with Iraq and "I don't pretend to understand the environment in Afghanistan."
Asked about whether he believes Iraq was helped by the 2007 surge of U.S. troops — as military chiefs and hawks in Congress are pushing Obama to do in Afghanistan — Odierno relented.
"The surge of forces clearly had an impact on our ability to improve the security inside of Iraq," Odierno said.
He added that civilian missions and a clear strategy also played a huge part in making the surge a success.
On the Net:
House Armed Services Committee: http://armedservices.house.gov/