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News | July 22, 2009

Obama: Handover signals commitment to Iraqi government

By John J. Kruzel , American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON (July 22, 2009) – The transfer of Iraq’s towns and cities to Iraqi control last month is emblematic of the U.S. fulfilling its commitment to the country, President Barack Obama said Wednesday.

Obama spoke about the American handover of security leadership to Iraqi counterparts that took place June 30 in a joint White House news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

“This transition was part of our security agreement and should send an unmistakable signal that we will keep our commitments with the sovereign Iraqi government,” Obama said, referring to the handover as an important step forward for the bilateral relationship.

The U.S. withdrawal from cities and towns was stipulated in a deal between Washington and Baghdad governing the status of U.S. forces in Iraq. But the legislation also allows for Americans to provide assistance in some situations to Iraqi forces in cities.

In the Iraqi capital, most U.S. facilities have moved outside cities – drawing down from hundreds of large and small bases around Baghdad at the height of the troop surge in 2007 to a number in the low teens – with a residual American force of 1,500 to 3,000 remaining in urban areas.

Obama said violence levels in Iraq remain low amid the transfer of authority, and he praised the stakeholders responsible for the success in Iraq since Maliki’s last visit to Washington in 2006.

“This progress has been made possible by the resilience of the Iraqi people and security forces, and also because of the extraordinary service of American troops and civilians in Iraq,” he said.

Some have described instances where the implementation of the agreement has led to tension and confusion, with instances of American and Iraqi commanders being unclear about the relationship on the ground. A top U.S. commander in Baghdad yesterday described some of the initial friction of the handover, which he said is giving way to a smoother transition of power.

“There have certainly been some scenes where an American or an Iraqi commander have to come out of their vehicles and walk up and figure out what’s going on,” Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Bolger, commander of Multinational Division Baghdad, told Pentagon reporters.

“What we’ve got is folks on the ground trying to make sense of it as they carry out their tasks,” he added.

Obama said today that such strategic and tactical discussions will continually take place between the two sides. “But overall, we have been very encouraged by the progress that has been made,” he added.

Obama echoed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, saying he has received positive assessments by Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno about how the arrangement is progressing.

“He has been extremely positive about the progress that has been made,” Obama said of his weekly reports from the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

In a briefing at the Pentagon earlier this week, Gates spoke about his discussions with Odierno.

“He said that the level of cooperation and collaboration with the Iraqi security forces is going much better than is being portrayed publicly and in the media,” Gates said. “It is perhaps a measure of our success in Iraq that politics have come to the country,” he added.

Appearing alongside Gates was Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he’s encouraged by the progress American and Iraqi partners have made.

“There clearly are challenges, but I think the leadership is working its way through each one of those challenges,” Mullen said. “So I’m encouraged.”