I returned from Iraq a little over two weeks ago, and trust me,
it's great to be in Washington and in your company today. After
nearly 15 months in Iraq--mostly spent focusing on where we
are and where we're going--it's a pleasure to step back and reflect
a bit about where we've been. I'd like to speak with you about Iraq
in 2007, to include the surge, its implementation, and my
assessment of its impact.
Baghdad: Before the Surge
As I prepared to depart Fort Hood, Texas, for Baghdad in late
November 2006, the Coalition effort in Iraq was at a crossroads.
The United States had just held mid-term elections; a new Secretary
of Defense had been appointed; and the long-awaited
recommendations of the Iraq Study Group were about to be
Stories in the press described the situation in Iraq as
spiraling out of control. One Los Angeles Times article
discussed the rising level of sectarian violence in Baghdad and how
this violence seemed to feed on itself. Placing his account in
context, the writer mentioned that al-Qaeda had detonated a
bomb in the Shia neighborhood of Sadr City the previous week,
killing over 200 people. This was the latest in a steady run of
high-profile attacks since the Golden Mosque bombing of
February 2006 in Samarra. And for at least one Shiite living in
Baghdad, it was the last straw.
After months of standing apprehensively on the sidelines, the
27-year-old shopkeeper signed up with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army,
feeling obligated to do so for his own family's protection.
Illustrating how violence was increasingly consuming the
capital city, the article also told of a 33-year-old Sunni Arab who
decided to join a militia ostensibly for the same reason, to
protect his community. In reality though, thousands of fighters in
Baghdad took an expansive view of their role as "protectors," and
their actions consequently fueled the cycle of violence.
Taking the offensive against Iraqi civilians on the other side
of the sectarian divide, many launched attacks that elicited
retaliation, which, as the situation deteriorated, only
provided justification for the next round of brutal reprisals.
Sunni and Shia alike tolerated the extremists in their midst
because the Iraqi Army and Police, in some cases, could not be
trusted and, in most cases, lacked the capacity to protect the
The activities of militias and death squads helped to sustain
the cycle of violence in the capital city, and their continued
growth stemmed--most fundamentally--from an absence of
security. With the violence came fear. Attitudes hardened as
survival became the one imperative; allegiances formed along
sectarian lines; and civilian deaths accumulated. Close to 2,000
Iraqis lost their lives as a result of ethno-sectarian
violence in November 2006 alone, and the count exceeded this grim
benchmark the following month. Corpses were found in trash heaps
and along Baghdad's side streets by the dozens each day.
Al-Anbar: Before the Surge
In al-Anbar province, things were actually getting better,
but the positive signs had not yet become evident. Also in late
November, The Washington Post ran a story entitled
"Anbar Picture Grows Clearer...and Bleaker." The article discussed
the findings of an assessment that characterized the province as
lost--with al-Qaeda in Iraq exerting control over the daily lives
of Anbaris more so than any other political or military
The Post summarized a Marine intelligence report, stating
"Between AQI's [al-Qaeda in Iraq's] violence, Iran's influence, and
an expected U.S. drawdown, the...situation has deteriorated to a
point that U.S. and Iraqi troops are no longer capable
of...defeating the insurgency in al-Anbar."
In fact, the province's tribes had already begun to turn against
AQI. Nonetheless, the broad sentiment among the Sunni was that
their worst fears of being marginalized--even subjugated--in a
Shia-dominated Iraq were coming to fruition. Many
commentators at the time used the term "civil war" to describe
the conflict. Given the situation in Baghdad and Anbar, it was
hard to dismiss this as careless exaggeration.
When I arrived in Iraq, General George Casey, then the
Multinational Force commander, challenged me to break the
cycle of sectarian violence. Breaking the cycle and reducing
the violence required securing the population and stopping
accelerants, our term for those carrying out the attacks and thus
triggering the subsequent reprisals. We had made efforts in Baghdad
along these lines before, but not to the point where they had
yielded any significant or lasting gains.
Establishing Basic Security: Late
Coalition forces could concentrate on selected areas and clear
them of extremists. But when these areas transitioned to Iraqi
control as our units moved on to other parts of the city, the Iraqi
Security Forces (ISF) left behind were incapable of
"holding" the ground we had won. The challenges involved with
securing the population were simply too great for the ISF at the
In some cases, the ISF itself was complicit in attacks against
the civilians its units were charged to protect. Another obstacle
to solidifying security gains was political in nature. Then, as
now, sustainable security demanded a political solution, with the
chief feature being a government of Iraq (GOI) commitment to
national reconciliation. Still today, we see some GOI
intransigence, but they are making progress.
In late 2006, the progress we can observe now was unthinkable.
In short, we could hardly expect successful transition or
meaningful reconciliation without basic security. Establishing
security for the population was a prerequisite for further
progress. It was essential. And to make a decisive impact, we
needed more combat power and a change in approach.
However, it is important that I mention one other factor that
informed our planning and decision-making process. On December
19, 2006, we captured some mid-level al-Qaeda leaders just north of
Baghdad. Upon them was a map that clearly depicted al-Qaeda's
strategy for the total and unyielding dominance of Baghdad, betting
that control of Iraq's capital and its millions of citizens
would give them free rein to export their twisted ideology and
Indeed, al-Qaeda did operate with impunity in several areas
surrounding the capital that we call the "Baghdad Belts," using
these sanctuaries to introduce accelerants of violence. This
strategy was similar to the way in which Saddam Hussein
employed his elite Republican Guard forces to control the city. It
was clear to us that Coalition forces would need to clear AQI from
these belts and deny these enemies safe havens in order to control
Offensive Operations: Early 2007
From January to June 2007, the surge forces deployed gradually
to Iraq, but we adjusted our strategy even before the first
additional Brigade Combat Team arrived. Implementing the surge
involved much more than throwing extra resources at a problem. It
meant committing ourselves to protecting the Iraqi
populace--with a priority to Baghdad--while exploiting what
appeared to be nascent progress against AQI in Anbar.
It meant changing our mindset as we secured the people where
they worked and slept and where their children played. It meant
developing new tactics, techniques, and procedures in order to
implement this concept. We began to establish Joint Security
Stations and Combat Outposts throughout Baghdad. We erected
protective barriers and established checkpoints to create
"safe neighborhoods" and "safe markets," improving security for
Iraqis as they went about their daily lives.
Changing our approach also meant introducing more balance in our
targeting by going after both Sunni and Shia extremists. I
should point out that this modification required the government of
Iraq's cooperation, and it is significant to note that we got it.
Shia militia leaders conducting extra-judicial killings would
no longer get a free pass.
Changing our approach meant reinvigorating our partnership with
the Iraqi Security Forces and improving their capacity. It meant
improving our ability to integrate our military efforts with the
expertise of other government agencies--largely through Embedded
Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Finally, it meant determining
where best to employ the surge forces in and around Baghdad and
Anbar and sequencing their employment so that they had the greatest
Many have discussed how we implemented this change in strategy -
building up forces and capability through the spring of 2007;
launching Phantom Thunder--a set of simultaneous operations across
Baghdad and its surrounding belt areas; and quickly following up
that with Phantom Strike in order to keep extremists off
Results: A Change in Attack Trends
Throughout these offensive operations, we maintained
constant focus on job one--protecting the population. By November,
we could claim that attacks had dropped to their lowest levels
since 2004-2005. There were 30 attacks in al-Anbar province during
the last week in October. One year prior, there had been over 300.
Today there are under 20 incidents per week in all of Anbar.
The change in attack trends in Baghdad was also dramatic; it
reflected a marked reduction of nearly 60 percent. In 2006,
civilian deaths throughout Iraq were over 3,000 in the month of
December. In less than a year, they had plummeted by 70 percent. In
the Baghdad Security Districts specifically, ethno-sectarian
attacks and deaths decreased by 90 percent over the course of
Obviously, it's entirely too early to declare victory and go
home, but I think it's safe to say that the surge of Coalition
forces--and how we employed those forces--have broken the cycle of
sectarian violence in Iraq. We are in the process of exploiting
Explaining the reduction in violence and its strategic
significance has been the subject of much debate. It's tempting for
those of us personally connected to the events to exaggerate
the effects of the surge. By the same token, it's a gross
oversimplification to say, as some commentators have, that the
positive trends we're observing have come about because we paid off
the Sunni insurgents or because Muqtada al-Sadr simply decided to
announce a ceasefire. These assertions ignore the key variable in
the equation--the Coalition's change in strategy and our employment
of the surge forces.
Suggesting that the reduction in violence resulted merely
from bribing our enemies to stop fighting us is uninformed and an
oversimplification. It overlooks our significant offensive
push in the last half of 2007 and our rise in casualties in May and
June as we began to take back neighborhoods. It overlooks the
salient point that many who reconciled with us did so from a
position of weakness, rather than strength. The truth is that the
improvement in security and stability is the result of a
number of factors, and what Coalition forces did throughout 2007
ranks among the most significant.
In December 2006, the number of American fighting battalions in
the Baghdad Security Districts was 13. By the following summer,
there were 25 conducting operations from dozens of Joint
Security Stations and Combat Outposts in the heart of the
city. Throughout Baghdad and the surrounding belts, Coalition
forces were not only attacking the enemy, they were establishing
and maintaining a presence in places that had long been sanctuaries
At the same time, we were going after Shia extremists--those
responsible for the displacement of Sunni families,
sectarian-motivated executions, and intimidating the populace in
general. We launched precise, targeted raids repeatedly against the
worst offenders. Given additional troops, the Coalition employed
them to protect the population. This commitment to the people of
Iraq made a difference both directly and indirectly.
Successful Partnerships: Police and
Partnered with the Iraqi Security Forces, our operations
fragmented what were once well-established AQI support zones,
disrupted the network's operations, and forced its leaders (those
who survived) to shift their bases elsewhere--in many
cases, out of reach of Baghdad. Likewise, Coalition forces
knocked Shia extremists off balance and drove many away from the
capital. I believe our operations injected a healthy dose of
confusion into the Mahdi Army's ranks, caused many
intermediate- and lower-level leaders to overreact, and
ultimately prompted Muqtada al-Sadr to call for a ceasefire to
restore order and to recast the image of his organization as a
humanitarian rather than a military one. No doubt, our efforts to
disrupt Mahdi Army leadership figured significantly in Sadr's
The surge of Coalition forces also helped bring about a surge in
Iraqi Security Force capacity. More U.S. brigade combat teams meant
more partnered units for the Iraqi Army and National Police. When
it comes to developing the ISF, there is simply no substitute for
Embracing and enabling the concept of protecting the
population also built momentum for bottom-up reconciliation,
allowing this process to expand beyond Anbar into other provinces.
Enhanced security and persistent Coalition force presence
encouraged Iraqis who wanted to stand up and reject AQI to do so
without fear of retaliation. Joint Security Stations and Combat
Outposts had a clear, noticeable effect on the Iraqi people not
only physically, but more importantly, psychologically.
So, what did we do with these citizens that made the choice to
reject al-Qaeda and extremism? Acknowledging the potential risks of
dealing with former adversaries, our commanders seized upon the
opportunity and hired them to assist in local security where Iraqi
Army and Iraqi Police were lacking. Initially known as Concerned
Local Citizens, but now called the Sons of Iraq, a grassroots
movement sprung up akin to neighborhood watches. Mainly Sunni
at the beginning and wary of the Shia-led government, these groups
turned to the coalition and offered their services to provide
protection for the population.
In so doing, we were able to keep young Sunni men away from
extremism, provide jobs and income, and gain valuable intelligence
on the insurgency, improvised explosive devices, and caches.
But they were also looking for legitimacy. The impact of the Sons
of Iraq went beyond security and paved the way for improvements in
basic services, economic progress, and local governance. As word of
their success spread, so did the program--and it continues today.
Only paying them meager wages and not providing weapons and
ammunition, the program has been an unqualified success.
Additionally, there is a second-order effect in that every
dollar paid to the Sons of Iraq gets spent at least two additional
times as they provide for their families and then local markets buy
wholesale goods to stock their stands. In places where we have
employed the Sons of Iraq, we average a ten-fold increase in the
markets, for example going from 40 to 400 stands. Finally, the Sons
of Iraq are now branching out across Iraq and increasingly include
Shia groups and, in some cases, mixed sect groups.
Setting the Stage for Hope
Generally speaking, when security conditions improve, a narrow
focus on survival opens up and makes room for hope. Hope provides
an opportunity to pursue improvements in quality of life.
Along these lines, the surge helped set the stage for progress in
governance and economic development. In a very real way and at
the local level, this subtle shift in attitude reinforced our
security gains--allowing Coalition and Iraqi forces to hold the
hard-earned ground we had wrested from the enemy while continuing
to pursue extremists as they struggle to regroup elsewhere.
In Baghdad, al-Anbar, and in many other areas of Iraq, the story
in early 2008 is about improving people's lives and building
government capacity, and about their expectations regarding the
future. For the government of Iraq, the surge has provided a window
of opportunity. This window will not remain open forever.
To capitalize on the reduction of violence in 2007, Iraqi
leaders must make deliberate choices to secure lasting strategic
gains through reconciliation and political progress. This set of
choices and their collective effect will be decisive, I think. This
view puts things in context.
The future of Iraq belongs to the Iraqis. The improved security
conditions resulting in part from the surge of 2007 have given the
Iraqis an opportunity to choose a better way. In the last
week, several major pieces of legislation have been passed by the
Iraqi parliament: accountability and justice, provincial
powers, and amnesty law.
Let me close by emphasizing that there was much sacrifice to
achieve these gains. Let us all never forget those whose lives
have been changed forever because of injuries and those who
gave their lives fighting for the ideals of liberty as well as
their loved ones. Their sacrifices were and are not in vain, and
because of them the Iraqis have the right to choose their own
The gates of freedom remain open today because of our fallen
comrades: noble and gallant warriors who gave everything so others
can enjoy life, liberty, and happiness. We will honor their memory
and remain dedicated to ensuring their sacrifices are never
I am honored to serve in the greatest Armed Forces in the world,
and I'm proud of what it stands for. We have not finished our
mission, but we have proven our mettle. Thank you for giving me the
opportunity to talk to you this morning, and God Bless America.
Lieutenant General Raymond T. Odierno
is the Commanding General of U.S. III Corps.