Violence in Iraq is at its lowest levels since 2003, but the top U.S. commander in Iraq is warning against complacency.
In an exclusive interview with NPR, Gen. Ray Odierno says a brewing dispute in the oil-rich north could lead to renewed instability if left unresolved.
Dressed in new blue uniforms, a group of police cadets salute in formation at the Amarah police academy in southern Iraq. Gen. Odierno is in Amarah on a so-called "battlefield circulation" — the man in charge of the U.S. war effort frequently travels to different parts of the country to talk to his commanders in the field and see for himself what's going on.
While in Amarah, Odierno told NPR that he was satisfied with the general security situation in Iraq these days.
"The level of incidents in Iraq are at the lowest levels since 2003. So, from a security standpoint, it's going pretty well," he says, adding that the city of Mosul and nearby Diyala province are still areas of concern. And in Baghdad on Thursday, a car bombing left at least 16 people dead and 40 injured.
But Odierno says that by far his biggest worry right now is growing tensions between the semi-autonomous Kurdish north and Baghdad's central government.
"What I'm concerned about is I want those [tensions] to be dealt with diplomatically and politically, and not through violence," he says.
Odierno says the U.S. military is mediating the dispute, which centers on territorial control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other areas in Iraq's north.
"Our role is to ensure that it does not come to violence and it's solved in a peaceful way," he says.
Another issue that needs to be addressed, he says, is the future status of the peshmerga, Kurdish forces who are loyal to the Kurdish regional government. Though militias in Iraq are illegal, the Kurds have been allowed to maintain theirs. The fear is that if the trouble between Baghdad and the Kurds escalates, the Iraqi army and peshmerga could clash.
Despite those worries and others, Odierno is considering more U.S. troop reductions this year, ahead of parliamentary elections.
"In the August-September timeframe I will look at how things are going, and I will make another decision on whether I think we should ... reduce our presence more. And that assessment will be based on do I think I have enough forces to ensure that we have a peaceful, successful national election. If I believe we can do that with less forces, then we will off-ramp some forces," Odierno says.
Eventually, there will be only about 50,000 Americans in Iraq, down from slightly less than 140,000 now. Shortly after that, Odierno says, U.S. combat operations there will end.
"People can characterize it any way they want, but if the mission says we're not going to be doing combat operations, we will not be doing combat operations," he says. "The president has made it very clear that combat operations will be over on the 31st of August, 2010."
Odierno points to several indictors that signify the time has come for the U.S. to leave Iraq and to allow Iraqis more control: improvements in security, the downturn in violence and peaceful provincial elections. Odierno believes an upcoming national election will be peaceful as well.
But he acknowledges that nothing in Iraq is ever certain.
"The bottom line is we will continue to assess this. I believe the strategy we've put in place is a good one," he says.
Odierno says if things remain on track, the Iraqis will be capable of assuming full security control when the last American soldier leaves in 2011.