BRYAN WHITMAN (deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Public Affairs): General, this is Bryan Whitman at the Pentagon. Can you hear me okay?
GEN. ODIERNO: I can, Bryan. How are you today?
MR. WHITMAN: Good afternoon. And good morning to the press corps here in Washington. We are privileged to have General Odierno, the commanding general, Multinational Forces-Iraq, joining us this morning. As you will recall, he took command of MNF-I in September of last year, following his command as the Multinational Corps commander in Iraq; and a frequent participant in this format. This is -- this marks a dozen for him. This is his twelfth appearance in this format.
And certainly appreciate and are grateful for you giving us some time today on this important occasion -- a historic day in Iraq, a real milestone in Iraqi progress – and to give us a brief overview; and then, to take your questions. General Odierno, welcome.
GEN. ODIERNO: Thank you, Bryan. And good morning, everybody. I just want to make a very quick statement here. Then I'll get on to your questions.
As Bryan just said, today is a very important day for MNF-I, as we continue to move towards our objective of a sovereign, secure, stable and self-reliant Iraq. 30 June, 2009, also marks a significant milestone for Iraq, as the Iraqi security forces assume responsibility for security within the cities across the country. It is a day when Iraqis celebrate as they continue to move towards exercising their full sovereignty.
In accordance with the security agreement between the United States and Iraq, U.S. combat forces have completed the withdrawal out of Iraqi cities. A small number of U.S. forces will remain in cities to train, advise, coordinate with Iraqi security forces, as well as enable them to move forward. We will also support civil capacity efforts led by the U.S. Embassy, Baghdad; the government of Iraq; and the United Nations Assistance Mission here in Iraq.
Outside the cities, U.S. forces will continue to conduct full- spectrum and stability operations by, with and through our Iraqi security force partners.
Our combined efforts will establish a layer of defense as Iraqis secure the cities. Our combat forces, partnering with the Iraqi security forces, will secure the belts and borders in an attempt to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries and to limit freedom of movement of insurgents and prevent the facilitation of foreign fighters through the borders.
The U.S. is committed to full, transparent and continued implementation of the security agreement in a spirit of partnership with the sovereign nation of Iraq. The Iraqi people should be very proud of the dedication, progress and sacrifice of the Iraqi security forces and the government of Iraq. Their accomplishments in preparing for this day are commendable.
The American people can also be very proud as well of the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Coast Guardsmen, as well as our civilians, who have worked so hard over the past years, and tirelessly, and sacrificed so much in helping the people of Iraq progress towards a peaceful and democratic society.
So with that, I'd be happy to take your questions.
MR. WHITMAN: Start right here. We'll start with Andrew.
Q General, it's Andrew Gray from Reuters. You talked about a small number of U.S. forces remaining in the cities to train and advise. Can you put a figure? How many U.S. forces will remain?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, people have been trying to get me to say a figure now for about a month. And the reason I won't do it is because it's going to be different every single day, and it'll be based on how much training, how much advising, how much coordination is required. That will change each and every day. So I won't put a number on it.
It is a smaller number, a significantly smaller number than what we've had in the cities now. But it has very specific missions: train the Iraqi security forces, advise them as we continue to move forward, enable them in order to -- potentially if they need some help with aviation, logistics, et cetera. But more -- almost as important, coordinate and help us to continue our situational awareness of all situations within Iraq. And that will help us to better support the Iraqi security forces.
Q General, just to follow up briefly, I am disappointed you didn't give us the scoop after a month of holding out, but I wonder if you could at least give us a -- you know, is it an -- a few thousand? If you could give us a kind of ballpark -- are we talking about several thousand? Would that be a reasonable ballpark to use?
GEN. ODIERNO: Again -- again, there's hundreds of cities around, and we have hundreds of -- you know, and I've let the local commanders work this out. So for me to give a number would frankly be inaccurate, and I just don't want to do it. There'll be trainers, advisers, helping throughout all of the Iraqi cities where we continue to support and advise Iraqi security forces.
Q Whatever the number is, how are you going to convince them basically, the U.S. forces remaining, not to jump in and be helpful, where perhaps you would prefer that the Iraqis take the lead?
What will be different about what they're told to do, in a situation where they might think, their first instinct is, gosh, we can do that better.
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again this is -- I call it -- we are working on changing our mindsets in the city. And I equate it to when we first started the surge, where we had to change our mindset.
So pushing our soldiers back out, getting back into the communities, really partnering with the Iraqi security forces and today, it's the same kind of thing. We have to change our mindset.
When we're in the cities, there's very specific things that we'll do. Actually we've been out of the cities, a large majority of the cities now, for the last eight months. So it's really only Mosul and the last remnants that we've had, in Baghdad, that have pulled out over the last few weeks.
So we've actually been implementing this in many parts of Baghdad for a long time. And they understand what their mission is. They understand what we expect them to do. And you know, we have worked this very closely with all of the leaders in Iraq.
We've worked -- I've worked very closely with the minister of defense, the minister of interior, the operations commanders, the operational commanders in order to work this out. And I feel very comfortable with where we're at.
Q General, it's Tom Bowman with NPR.
I mean, you're reluctant to talk about how many trainers and mentors are in the cities. And it raises a question about whether or not this is just a show or not whether, you know, this is just semantics.
There are essentially U.S. soldiers with guns in the cities. You can call them trainers or mentors. But how different is it from what we saw maybe two-three weeks ago? And if you have U.S. soldiers just outside the cities, I mean, what is this?
Is this just a show for the American people?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I would say, you probably didn't listen to what I just said. Because what I just said was, having battalions and brigades inside a city is significantly different than having trainers, advisers and MiTT teams. And I said, we'll be operating in the belts around Baghdad.
I've been very clear about this, just like we did in the surge. We had -- the reason we had to surge forces is, we had to get people in the cities. And then we had to eliminate safe havens and sanctuaries in the belts around Baghdad.
It's the same thing, except the Iraqis will take responsibility for security in the cities. We will continue to do full-spectrum operations, outside of the cities, to work the safe havens and sanctuaries around the cities. And we will continue to do that. And it's legitimate, legitimate operations that we'll continue to conduct outside of the cities.
If you're here in Baghdad, you would know. There is a significant change inside of the cities.
There are thousands among thousands of soldiers that have pulled out of Baghdad. There -- and there hasn't been any soldiers in the cities in southern Iraq, there hasn't been any soldiers in the cities in Ramadi, there hasn't been any soldiers in the cities in Fallujah for months now. And we've been executing this very well.
So again, if you're here in Iraq, you would see it for yourself there is a significant change.
Q (Off mike) -- to be transparent, if you're going to be so transparent, why can't you tell us how many trainers and mentors are in the cities?
GEN. ODIERNO: Because it would be inaccurate. Because I don't know exactly how many are in the cities. We -- it varies day to day, based on the mission.
Q You must have a ballpark.
GEN. ODIERNO: I don't know how many times you want -- how many times you want me to say that? I don't know.
What I'm telling you is, it's training and advising teams that remain in Baghdad. And it'll be different every single day, and we've worked very closely locally with the commanders to figure this out. And it'll be different tomorrow than it is today. And that's why I don't want to say a number, because it'll be inaccurate. (Off mike) -- get to second-guess what I say. If I say a number today, it'll be different tomorrow, and it'll be different the next day. What I'm telling you is, it's significantly lower than it has been so far.
MR. WHITMAN: Jeff.
Q Hi, General. On a different topic -- (scattered chuckles) -- right now there are 131,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. In August -- next August it's going to be between 50(,000) and 35,000. Can you talk about just what it -- how is this going to work, just kind of a timeline of going from 131(,000) to between 50(,000) and 35(,000)?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, first, what I would say is, we've -- constantly draw down. Eight or nine months ago we were at about 165,000. So in the last six to eight months we've withdrawn about 35,000 soldiers.
We will continue to do that through the end of the year, although it'll be not as many. We'll slowly draw down to the end of the year. I've been given flexibility by my chain of command to make decisions based on the situation on the ground, because you want to make sure that we have enough forces on the ground to ensure good elections, legitimate, credible elections in January.
So we'll see a bit of a drawdown between now and then.
I have decision points that I've established in September and October that will make some decisions for the end of the year, and then I will make further decisions after the election. But I expect you'll see a significant drawdown of soldiers between March and April of next year and September.
Q And when you say significant drawdowns, can you -- I hate to say this -- quantify that at all?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, we're going to get down to 50,000 people by the end of September. I mean, I think that's what -- you've just said it when you asked your question. So we'll go down to some number, probably around 110(,000), 115,000, to 50,000.
Q From when to when? A hundred-ten (thousand), 115(,000) to 50(,000) from when to when? From January to the end of September?
GEN. ODIERNO: Again, I have several decision points, okay? I'm going to make those as we go forward. So we have 131,000 on the ground. There will be some less in that between now and December. Probably, I expect, we'll be somewhere around 120,000 by December. But that could change, because I have some flexibility based on how things go here on the ground. And then what I expect is between -- after the elections are over and the government starts to get seated, we will reduce our presence further, probably going somewhere between 115(,000) to 120(,000), down to 50,000.
MR. WHITMAN: Yeah, Thom.
Q Thank you. General, Thom Shanker with the New York Times. Can you give us your latest assessment of Iranian influence on Iraq -- training, funding, weapons, direct action, perhaps? And also, specifically, have you seen any change in that tempo since the election in Iran and the street protests there?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, thank you. We continue to still see training going on inside of Iran. We still believe weapons are moving and ammunition is moving from Iran into Iraq. We have not seen any adjustments made since the problem with the elections in Iran. They have kind of maintained themselves in a steady state as we've moved forward.
Q Is it your sense, General, that the Iranians are positioning themselves for further action? Because we haven't seen sort of the dramatic instances of the influence we saw over past years. What does it appear to be -- the Iranian game plan today inside Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I would just say that what we've seen is we've seen a bit of a slowdown of support. I'd like to say that has to do with the pressure that we've put on with us and the Iraqi security forces along the borders. I think we've made it much more difficult. We've uncovered several large weapon caches. We've also been able to go after and reconcile with some of the groups that they initially were supporting. We've also been able to go after some of their surrogates here. So I think that probably contributed a little bit.
But I also believe that they realized at the beginning of -- probably in February or March of this year that some of their strategy was failing. They had -- they fought against the security agreement. The security agreement was signed.
The candidates that I think they were attempting to support didn't do very well in the provincial elections. So I think, following that, they've done a bit of review of their strategy. However, they are still training and providing some weapons. But I believe they might also be trying to do a bit more soft influence in Iraq as well.
MR. WHITMAN: Joe?
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra. What kind of concerns you have regarding the situation in north, in Mosul and in Kirkuk, regarding the al Qaeda presence, regarding the disputed areas between the central government in Baghdad and Kurdistan?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, obviously one of the -- I would say one of the problems obviously we look at very closely are the Arab-Kurd tensions. What we've seen, though, is we do have a U.N. process that has begun. They've had several meetings already between the Kurdish regional government and the government of Iraq to try to start to work through some of these disputed territories. So that's a positive step forward. That's being led by the United Nations here. We think that has some potential.
In the meantime, what we're trying to do is continue to make sure they understand they solve their problems through negotiation and not through the use of violence. We have -- we stay in contact with all parties to ensure that tensions don't rise, and we spend quite a bit of time on that.
I would tell you that I still believe that al Qaeda has been significantly degraded here in Iraq. However, as we've seen over the last couple weeks, they're still capable of some attacks. Their attacks, especially the one up in Taza, which was south of Kirkuk, is an area that there had not been any attacks in several years.
And so they went after some very soft places inside of Iraq. Frankly I believe that's going to backfire on them, over time, because the Iraqi citizens -- they've really raised the air of the Iraqi citizens.
Al Qaeda continues to kill innocent people for no apparent reason, except to attempt to incite more violence. What's been positive about this is, the Iraqi people have not moved to any type of retaliation. We have not seen any movement toward sectarian strife, between any groups, based on these attacks.
Government leaders in Iraq have come out and made very clear statements, condemning these attacks, blaming al Qaeda, blaming these extremist elements. And frankly their support, I think, will continue to wane.
We continue to work very hard, working with the Iraqi security forces, to go after al Qaeda, who's still attempting to reestablish themselves in a bigger way in northern Iraq. We are working with them. And part of that is outside of Mosul, out in the Jazeera desert and other places. And we continue to work that very hard.
We're also working very hard to shut down the borders and make it very difficult for foreign fighters to flow in from Syria. That has been reduced significantly. And we continue to work very hard to ensure that continues to be very difficult for them to execute.
Q Just to follow up, General, talking about the tensions between the central government, in Baghdad, and Kurdistan, how do you see the future of the peshmerga?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again the peshmerga is a regional force. The peshmerga is a force that right now is responsible for security- internal to the KRG. There is discussions that there will be two divisions formed, as part of the Iraqi army.
That's part of the negotiations that are ongoing. And we are waiting to see how that works out, as we continue to move forward. And I think that will be part of the discussions that the KRG has with the government of Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: Tony, then Mik, then all the way to the back.
Q General, hi. Tony Capaccio with Bloomberg; have a couple of questions. One, what metrics should the American people -- American public use in July, August and September, as they view events in Iraq, to determine whether in fact the withdrawal was a prudent move? And then I have a second question.
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, I would say a couple of things. First, the metrics I look at are -- it really is looking at overall stability inside of Iraq, and that's a combination of several things. That's a combination of number of incidents that occur; that's a combination of high-profile attacks that occur; that's a combination of some political progress; it's the ability of the Iraqi security forces to continue to improve and take on responsibilities. It's all of those things that we'll look at to do our assessments.
I will tell you that incidents in May -- May was the lowest month of incidents on record here in Iraq. June is going along similar lines of May. The problem with June is, is over the last 10 days we've had a couple of high-profile attacks, so that changes it a little bit. But if you compare it back to the dark days of 2006 and '7, there's no comparison. There is not widespread violence here in Iraq. There are points of high-profile attacks. The unfortunate part about that is it takes -- it has inflicted some high casualties on the civilian population here. So we have some more hard work to do to ensure that -- to make it much more difficult, and protect the people of Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: I think we have time for another question.
GEN. ODIERNO: Sure.
MR. WHITMAN: Then we'll come back. Let's go to Mik.
Q Okay. General, on the most recent violence -- and forgive me if you were misquoted, but there were reports out of Baghdad today saying that you attributed some of the most recent violence in Iraq to Iran, or Iranian influence. If indeed that's the case, what specific evidence is there that Iran had a hand in some of that most recent violence?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what I said was -- is that the event up in Taza was clearly AQI. I said that there's been an increase in some indirect fire and explosively formed projectiles in Baghdad over the last few weeks, which are two signature elements of groups that have been trained in Iran and who've been equipped and given money to perform these attacks from Iran.
And so that was the basis of my comment.
And in fact the high-profile attack that occurred in Sadr City -- what I said is, there's some indication that in fact that might have been an accident where some surrogate insurgent groups were trying to move ammunition around inside of Sadr City, and it blew up while they were moving it around inside of Sadr City.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay, Barbara.
Q General Odierno, Barbara Starr from CNN. You know, Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen have made very clear that now it is the war in Afghanistan, no longer the war in Iraq, that is the priority. What are your concerns specifically about the potential for troops understandably getting a little demoralized over the next 18 months, feeling that they in Iraq are now fighting the forgotten war, that this is the new forgotten war?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, well, Barbara, I look at it a bit differently. I look at it as a positive thing, because I believe it's because of the progress that we've made here in Iraq. Because of the progress we were able to make here in 2007 and 2008, we signed a bilateral security agreement with the government of Iraq that outlined the way ahead here. The first step of that was today, which is the withdrawal from the cities, which follows up with our complete withdrawal of our troops by the end of 2011.
As President Obama came on and we then conducted another review, a decision was made that we'll end combat operations on 31 August of 2010 and we'll go to a 50,000-man transition force. I believe those decisions were made because of the progress that we're making here, the progress in security and the progress of the Iraqi security forces. So I look at it as -- and I think our soldiers look at it as -- progress that has been made here.
And the fact that incidents are way down, we're seeing Iraqis take more and more control, they are doing more and more each and every day -- so we see it is a very positive development, not one of a forgotten war but one of success that we've had here over the last couple years and continue -- and hopefully we will continue that success as we transition more responsibility to the government of Iraq. That's the challenge we have between now and the end of 2011, is that we continue this success as we transition over to the government of Iraq.
MR. WHITMAN: Carl, then we'll go to -- (off mike).
Q General, I'm Carl Osgood with Executive Intelligence Review. There's a school of thought going around here in Washington that the war is far from over; that U.S. military engagement will be necessary far beyond 2011, despite the terms of the agreement; that we're a long way from political stability in Baghdad, and so on.
So I'm wondering what -- and I seem to recall that earlier in the year you were quoted perhaps incorrectly to similar effect -- I'm wondering what your prognosis is going forward in terms of the ability of the country to become more stable and so on.
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, again, as I just said, I believe the country's moving in the right direction. I think the elections coming up at the end of January -- excuse me, in January are very important. I think that government that is formed will form the next four years, which will be very formative times inside of Iraq. Those four years will clearly define where Iraq is headed over the next four years. And that will define clearly, I believe, is stability going to continue to move forward in Iraq?
And so I think that will be an important milestone as the Iraqi people choose their next government, as that government gets seated. If we continue to -- or continue with the progress we're making in security, I believe that conditions are set for Iraq to continue to move forward and potentially reach what we consider to be a secure, stable, sovereign Iraq by the end of 2011.
I think the statements of time is a bit out of context, because there's two, really, issues. There's one about internal security, and there's one about having external capabilities to defend its neighbor -- against any foreign influence here in Iraq. I'm very confident that the Iraqis are on their way to clearly being able to defend themselves internally by 2011.
What might take a little bit longer is the development of their navy and their air force in order to -- for them to protect their air and their territorial waters. So that doesn't mean we have to help them; there's other nations that could help them to protect that. But that will be a decision that has to be made further down the road, depending on how far they get. So I think my comments were taken a bit out of context, because when I said a later date it was based on these two specific capabilities.
Q Greg Jaffe, Washington Post. As U.S. troops consolidate on bases, do you worry at all that their movements become a little bit more predictable, they become easier to target with things like IEDs and EFPs? And how do you guard against that?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. Well, first, we haven't just consolidated back on big bases. We have many outposts out and around the cities that we had established as we conducted the surge. So we have not all just come back into a small number of big bases.
We will still occupy hundreds of small outposts around Iraq. They just will not be inside of the cities. And that will help us to be able to move around.
As we have to resupply in the cities and we have to move into the cities to conduct some coordination, clearly we will continue to do all the things we do now. We'll clear the routes; we'll work with Iraqi security forces to coordinate and help us to provide the security on those routes. And we've been doing this now for a period of time, so I feel comfortable that we'll continue to be able to do it.
Obviously, it's not the same as being in the city. So we'll work our way through this. And yes, there is a big concern about that. However, I believe we've mitigated the majority of the risk.
MR. WHITMAN: All right. Looks like we got -- you can do some round two. So let's go back here to Mik.
Q General, Jim Miklaszewski, NBC. One of the missions of the U.S. military over the past six years has really been to tamp down the kind of sectarian rivalries that existed there in Iraq. How convinced are you that the military -- the security forces have advanced to a professional level, a disciplined level, where those old rivalries that have pretty much dominated the way security forces had performed for decades -- how convinced are you that those won't rise up again and create the kind of retribution we had seen that security forces had meted out in Iraq previously?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah, Jim, that's a great question, frankly. And I would just tell that we have seen -- again, the competence of the Iraqi security forces has grown tremendously since, again, what I would call the dark days of 2006. And what we've seen is, we've seen the Iraqi army grow professionally. We've seen them conduct operations across the country in a nonsectarian way.
And frankly, the biggest improvement of any force here in the last two years has been in the National Police. The National Police has brought in new leadership. They have gone through a significant amount of training. They are seen as a legitimate, credible force that conducts nonsectarian operations around Iraq. So I feel fairly confident in that.
The local police is the one we probably worry about the most. And that's why we haven't turned over security yet to the local police. They are the ones who might be influenced locally, politically and other things, although they've made great progress as well, but not quite as much. So I believe what I've seen is the professionalism of the National Police. The professionalism of the Iraqi army is significantly better than it was two-and-a-half years ago.
I would be -- I would be unfaithful to you if I told you I think it's a hundred percent across the force. It might not be. But I think the large majority of the force has really moved forward. And I believe that them causing sectarian problems is much -- the chance of that is much less today than it ever has been before.
Q (Off mike) -- consider that a -- potentially a bigger threat than outside influences like al Qaeda, for example?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what I worry about is -- it's really -- it's the political drivers of instability, is what I call it. It is the Arab-Kurd political issues that might rise to tensions. It is intra- Shi'a political issues that could rise to tensions. It is intra-Sunni political issues that could cause some tensions. So it's those political issues that we've watched very carefully.
And, of course, again, what I've said earlier is we hope that they will resolve those through diplomatic means, discussions, et cetera, and not go to violence. And that's what they have been doing for the large -- for the most part. And so there's no reason for me to think that won't continue.
But we watch it very closely. And those -- we watch for those indicators. One of the things we watch very carefully is the return -- is a return to any type of sectarian activity. We'll watch if there -- we see an increase in sectarian activity. We'll watch if we see those indicators of insurgent groups returning at a higher level.
And we will work very closely with the government of Iraq on these issues. We'll talk -- I will continue to talk on almost a daily basis with the minister of defense, minister of interior and the operational -- Iraqi operational commanders here to ensure that we understand what these indicators are.
MR. WHITMAN: Tony, I promised you we'd get back to you.
Q Sir, yeah, Tony Capaccio again, with Bloomberg. One of the untold stories during the surge was the surge basically of special operations unit activities against al Qaeda leaders, you know, aided by tips and technical intelligence going after the leadership. Will that continue fairly unabated over the next year-and-a-half, or will that be turned over more to Iraqi commando forces?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, we've worked this very hard, Tony. We've -- we've also begun to be transparent in all of our counterterrorism operations. We've been doing that now for several months. We are -- we do joint operations with Iraqi special operations forces. We now have an Iraqi group that's embedded with our technical and -- our technical and analytic targeters that help us to develop targets. So we've been building this partnership now for a while, so I believe we will be able to continue with these operations jointly. And I feel pretty confident about that.
MR. WHITMAN: Annie.
Q General, you lost four soldiers -- yesterday, I believe -- just as this hand-over was about to start. Are you concerned at all about, sort of paradoxically, as there are fewer Americans walking around on the streets of Baghdad and Mosul, that in a way they are a more attractive target?
And I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself. Anne Gearan with the AP.
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. Hi Anne. Obviously, it's -- we lost four soldiers last night here, Baghdad time. And obviously, it's always tough when we lose soldiers here. Actually, this attack did not happen in the city. It was outside of the city. But -- but what I would say is that's one of the signatures we have to look at, is: if we have less movement, will they target specifically U.S. soldiers? We have not seen that yet, but obviously, we work very closely -- we will continue to work very closely with Iraqi security force partners, in order to make sure and limit the risk.
We -- you know, under the security agreement, we have the right to self-defense. So if we see there's a problem there, we will have to rework with the government of Iraq our procedures, to ensure we're able to adequately protect our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.
We will always do everything we can to protect them.
Q So how would you do that? Would you just -- would you pick up the phone then and call an Iraqi counterpart and say, hey, look, you know, look what happened last night; we've got to change the terms of that operation.
On a sort of micro-level like that, or are we talking about something more formal?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, what we would do is, I think, first locally, I think, the brigade and division commanders would be working that problem locally. If that doesn't work, and we think it needs something bigger, then I'll work with the minister of interior, minister of defense. But again it depends on the situation.
But again we will work that with them. We have built strong relationships with all the Iraqi leaders, up and down the chain of command, over the last several years. And we will use those relationships to work out these issues.
Q General, this is Joe Tabet with Al Hurra again.
Last time you talked to us, you were sort of satisfied regarding Syria's role or Syria's cooperation, in securing its border, in stopping the infiltration of foreign fighters.
Do you still have the same assessment regarding Syria's role with Iraq?
GEN. ODIERNO: I don't think I said I was content. I think I probably said that they had done a few things lately that was encouraging. And I would still put it that way. They have picked a few individuals up who, we know, were involved in foreign fighter facilitation. And that's very encouraging to me.
I'm hoping, as we continue to engage with Syria, we'll be able to work through these issues and assist in continuing to tamp down the facilitation that still is coming through Syria.
Q General, last time you were here, physically here, you mentioned that you expected a low-level insurgency to continue beyond 2011. And I was hoping you could talk a little more about, what does a low-level insurgency look like?
GEN. ODIERNO: Well, I mean, I think, kind of how I feel about that is, there will be some very small cells and groups that are dispersed, not able to coordinate with each other, but are still willing to conduct attacks, in order to make their political points or in order to create some local instability, in order to gain influence.
And I think that's probably how I would best describe it.
Q By "cells," are -- do you mean al Qaeda?
GEN. ODIERNO: They could be al Qaeda. They could be Shi'a extremists. They could be Sunni extremists. But I would see them to be very small, not connected, not have a lot of robust capability -- but would still potentially conduct some attacks and some activity over time. And I think the -- that we have to have the Iraqi security forces prepared to deal with this type of threat.
MR. WHITMAN: Okay. We have time for about one more. So Andrew, why don't you close it, since you started?
Q General, Andrew Gray from Reuters again. I -- just wondering if you could tell us something of your personal feelings today, your -- obviously this is your third stint; you were division commander, 4th ID, for the first phase of this, then back as a corps commander, and now as the top commander. As you watched developments today, saw the ceremonies, the celebrations -- and in recent days -- what have been your feelings? What's been your overall sense? What's been dominating your thoughts?
GEN. ODIERNO: Yeah. I would thank you for the question, actually. I would say that, you know, I really look back to 2006 when I first got here as the corps commander when the violence – the sectarian violence and the other violence were so high that it was hard to see a way out.
But, today was just another sign that I have a lot of hope that Iraq is going to be able to move forward as a secure, stable, sovereign Iraq that could be a long-term partner with the United States in the Middle East who has a democratic government.
And today gives me more hope towards that, as I see them take on a little more responsibility, but, more importantly, want to take on that responsibility. The Iraqi people want their forces to take that on. They want to see us move out of the cities; they want to see us move in the background.
They're not ready for us to go yet, but they are ready for us to allow them to attempt to exercise their security responsibilities. And to me, that's very encouraging.
And frankly, the last six months have gone a bit better than I expected. I thought the first six months of implementing the security agreement would be very, very difficult, but it hasn't. And we've worked together to continue to move forward under the terms of the security agreement, and that's what gives me hope and belief that we can do this now beyond -- now that we've moved out of the cities.
I will just say, though, there's still going to be bumps in the road. There's still going to be violence here. There's still going to be some problems. But I think that we're going to be able to work through that, and I'm encouraged by that. And as I said earlier, I think the elections coming up will be a big step in accomplishing that.
So as I look back, I feel more encouraged by what I've seen today. I feel more encouraged about where we're headed. I think it's going to take me about 45 days to do a good, honest assessment on what I -- where I think we are and do we have to adjust this in any way. And so I expect I'll be able to do that sometime in the middle of August.
MR. WHITMAN: General, we have reached the end of the allocated time for this. Let me just throw it back to you one last time, to see if you have any final thoughts that you'd like to share with us and then let you get on your way.
GEN. ODIERNO: Sure. I would just say that today was an extremely important day for Iraq, and it's psychologically important to them. It's psychologically important that they now have made progress with their security forces, that they made progress where they can now take charge inside of the cities.
It's important for us that we understand this and recognize this and allow them to exercise that authority. It's important for us to fit in our role as it continues to adjust. It's important for us to maintain our adaptability that we've shown out through the last three years, and as we continue to change and be very -- and show our initiative, in order to gain improved security here.
And I expect that our leaders here will continue to do that.
We continue to have the best soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines in the world. Their sacrifice is incredible. The sacrifices of our families are incredible. And as we move into the 4th of July, I'd just ask each and every one of you, as you celebrate the 4th of July, that you just remember all of our soldiers who are deployed, around the world, both here and in Afghanistan, and remember their sacrifices and their families' sacrifices.
And again thanks so much for being here. Sorry I lost my temper a little bit on the numbers. But I don't want to be inaccurate to you all on the numbers. And if I give you a number, it's not going to be right.
It's significantly less than what it is today. It's significantly noticeable on the ground that there are significantly less Americans inside of all the cities. And I feel confident that we're on the right track.
So thank you very much. And all of you, have a great 4th of July. Thank you.
MR. WHITMAN: General, thank you for your time and for the insight that we can only get from the MNF-I commander. So thank you. And we look forward to doing this again sometime down the road.
GEN. ODIERNO: Okay. Thank you.