Image: David Petraeus, Ray Odierno
Gen. David Petraeus congratulates Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who rises to four-star general rank and takes over as U.S. commander in Iraq from Petraeus during the formal change-of-command ceremony at the U.S. military headquarters in Baghdad, Iraq, in 2008. Odierno leaves Baghdad on Sept. 1 for a new assignment in the U.S., and Petraeus switched last month to take command in Afghanistan.
updated 8/22/2010 10:17:41 AM ET 2010-08-22T14:17:41

It would take "a complete failure" of the Iraqi security forces for the U.S. to resume combat operations there, the top American commander in Iraq said as the final U.S. fighting forces prepared to leave the country.

With a major military milestone in sight, Gen. Ray Odierno said in interviews broadcast Sunday that any resumption of combat duties by American forces is unlikely.

"We don't see that happening," Odierno said. The Iraqi security forces have been doing "so well for so long now that we really believe we're beyond that point."

President Barack Obama plans a major speech on Iraq after his return to Washington, according to a senior administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity Sunday because details were being finalized. The speech will come shortly after Obama returns to the White House on Aug. 29 from his Martha's Vineyard vacation.

About 50,000 U.S. troops will remain in the country until the end of 2011 to serve as a training and assistance force, a dramatic drawdown from the peak of more than 170,000 during the surge of American forces in 2007.

Obama will face a delicate balancing act in his speech between welcoming signs of progress and concluding to the 7-year-old war without prematurely declaring the mission accomplished, as his former President George W. Bush once did.

U.S. involvement in Iraq beyond the end of 2011, Odierno said, probably would involve assisting the Iraqis secure their airspace and borders.

While Iraq forces can handle internal security and protect Iraqis, Odierno said he believes military commanders want to have the U.S. involved beyond 2011 to help Iraqis acquire the required equipment, training and technical capabilities.

He said Iraq's security forces have matured to the point where they will be ready to shoulder enough of the burden to permit the remaining 50,000 soldiers to go home at the end of next year.

If the Iraqis asked that American troops remain in the country after 2011, Odierno said U.S. officials would consider it, but that would be a policy decision made by the president and his national security advisers.

Odierno's assessment, while optimistic, also acknowledges the difficult road ahead for the Iraqis as they take control of their own security, even as political divisions threaten the formation of the fledgling democracy.

On Thursday, the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division began crossing the border from Iraq into Kuwait, becoming the last combat brigade to leave Iraq. Its exodus, along with that of the approximately 2,000 remaining U.S. combat forces destined to leave in the coming days, fulfills Obama's pledge to end combat operations in Iraq by Aug. 31.

In interviews with CBS' "Face the Nation" and CNN's "State of the Union," Odierno said it may take several years before America can determine if the war was a success.

"A strong democratic Iraq will bring stability to the Middle East, and if we see Iraq that's moving toward that, two, three, five years from now, I think we can call our operations a success," he said.

Much of that may hinge on whether Iraq's political leaders can overcome ethnic divisions and work toward a more unified government, while also enabling security forces to tamp down a simmering insurgency.

Iraq's political parties have been bickering for more than five months since the March parliamentary elections failed to produce a clear winner. They have yet to reach agreements on how to share power or whether to replace embattled Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and amid the political instability, other economic and governmental problems fester.

Fueling that instability is neighboring Iran which, Odierno said, continues to fund and train Shiite extremist groups.

"They don't want to see Iraq turn into a strong democratic country. They'd rather see it become a weak governmental institution," said Odierno.

He added that he is not worried that Iraq will fall back into a military dictatorship, as it was under the reign of Saddam Hussein.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: Iraq in 2010: Key stats

  • Image: Displaced Iraqi children in hut made of cans
    Ahmad al-Rubaye  /  AFP-Getty Images
    Internally displaced Iraqi Shiite children peek out from a hut made of mud and cooking oil cans at a squatter settlement in southern Baghdad on July 12, 2008.

    How to measure where Iraq is today compared to just before the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in March 2003? While statistics tell only part of the story, they provide a quick snapshot of various categories — from war deaths to quality of life indicators.

    Below are some chosen for having recent and relatively reliable data. Richard Engel, NBC's chief foreign correspondent, adds his perspective from his time living and working in Baghdad. Click on the links on the left to find out more about key facts.

  • Fatalities

    Image: Brandon E. Maggart
    Pablo Martinez Monsivais  /  AP

    The estimate of civilian deaths tied to the war has declined since peaking in 2006 at 27,768 for that year. For January-July 2010, the estimate was 2,264 deaths. U.S. military fatalities peaked in 2007 at 904. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq topped 160,000 several times since 2003, and now stands at around 50,000.

    Source: Iraq Body Count, Defense Department

    Richard Engel: Estimates of the number of Iraqi causalities vary wildly. The number I’ve heard from my most reliable sources is around 150,000. Many Iraqis, however, believe the number is much higher. It is not uncommon for Iraqis to claim that they lost one million to the war. While I have never seen evidence to support this claim, it is important because that is the common perception. One million dead is the number many Iraqis use to calculate in their minds the cost of the war.

  • Displaced Iraqis

    Karim Kadim  /  AP

    2.76 million in November 2009, down from 2.84 million a year earlier but still high compared to 1.3 million in 2005. Seventy percent are women and children. Another 1.7 million Iraqis were living abroad in June 2009, down from a peak of 2.3 million who fled, mainly to Syria and Jordan.

    Source: Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, U.N.

    Richard Engel: The displacement statistics don’t tell a complete picture because often those who left Iraq were from specific communities. Iraqi Christians for example left at a disproportionately high rate, as did Iraqi professors and medical doctors.  

  • Food

    Image:Iraqi aid
    Anja Niedringhaus  /  AP

    Ninety percent of Iraqis get government-subsidized food rations of wheat, rice, sugar, tea and other basics — but distribution is uneven. The U.N. World Food Program helped 1 million Iraqis in December 2009, and estimates 6.4 million more are highly dependent on government safety nets.

    Source: U.N. World Food Program

    Richard Engel: Iraqis survived on these food rations under Saddam Hussein. Under his dictatorship, the food rations were basic, but complete. You could live off of them. Now, they are minuscule: just a few bars of soap or bags of rice. Iraqis still collect the rations, but can no longer live off them.

  • Health infrastructure

    While Iraq had 34,000 physicians in the early 2000s, by 2008 only 16,000 were still in the country — a trend that has not been reversed since Iraq's 2008 appeal for medical staff to return.

    Source: International Committee of the Red Cross

  • Communications

    Landlines have been stagnant, at around 40 per 1,000 people in recent years, but cell phones have soared from less than 1 per 1,000 in 2002 to 476 per 1,000 in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available.

    Those Iraqis with online access has grown tenfold, from less than 1 per 1,000 in 2002 to 10 per 1,000 in 2008.

    Source: International Telecommuncation Union

  • Corruption

    In 2003, Iraq was already 16 countries from the bottom of an annual ranking on perceived corruption. It's only gotten worse, being listed in 2009 as the fourth most corrupt country along with Sudan, and ahead only of Sudan, Myanmar, Afghanistan and Somalia.

    Transparency International

    Richard Engel: Iraqi corruption is insidious and appears to be getting worse.

Video: U.S. navigates turning points on war fronts

  1. Transcript of: U.S. navigates turning points on war fronts

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: We turn now to Afghanistan and Iraq and more grim news about deadly attacks on US forces in both countries. NBC 's Tom Aspell has the latest from Kabul .

    TOM ASPELL reporting: Only days after American combat forces withdrew from Iraq , a US soldier has been killed in a rocket attack in Iraq 's southern province of Basra . His death brings the total number of American service personnel killed in Iraq to at least 4,416 since the war there began in 2003 . Fifty thousand US troops will remain in Iraq , but their commander said this morning it's unlikely that they'll resume combat duties unless the Iraqi government forces collapse.

    General RAY ODIERNO: We don't see that happening. They've been -- they've been doing so well for so long now that we really believe we're beyond that point.

    ASPELL: In Afghanistan , it was a deadly weekend. Six US soldiers were killed fighting Taliban insurgents in the east and south of the country, 28 Americans have been killed this month, 66 last month. Afghan President Hamid Karzai said this morning he believed the war can still be won.

    President HAMID KARZAI: We have to win, but we -- in order for us to do that we must end the business as usual and we must begin to re-examine whether we're doing everything correctly.

    ASPELL: And the US commander here, General David Petraeus , says he has the resources he needs.

    General DAVID PETRAEUS: By the end of August, of course, we will have nearly tripled the number of US forces on the ground, we've expanded the non- US NATO forces, tripled the number of civilians, increased the funding to enable 100,000 more Afghan national security forces and so on.

    ASPELL: In addition to the troops, US forces can expect more equipment, much of which will come from Iraq now that the combat troops have left, including MRAP armored vehicles, which offer good protection against roadside bombs. By the end of September, the military here expects to have the personnel and material it needs for a major push against the Taliban


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