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But Gates, along with Petraeus, has cautioned that the hard-won security gains remain fragile and must be cemented by political progress and reconciliation. "We are at a pivotal moment where progress remains fragile and caution should be the order of the day," he said.
Odierno, who had served as Petraeus' deputy for 15 months until February, returns for his third Iraq tour at a time when Washington and Baghdad are still hammering out the details of a contentious security pact to mandate the continuation of the U.S. mission next year, after the U.N. mandate that currently legalizes its presence expires in December.
It will fall to Odierno to oversee the implementation of the new agreement and the gradual drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq as they hand over control to Iraqi security forces. "This struggle is theirs to win," Odierno said. But doubts remain as to whether they can. Odierno's No. 2, Lieut. General Lloyd Austin, said on Monday that he wasn't "sure that pushing [Iraqi security forces] forward is the right thing that we want to do."
Thus far, the Pentagon has authorized only a modest withdrawal, planning to bring home 8,000 troops by February, leaving behind some 138,000. Further troop withdrawals will be influenced by events on the ground, and also by the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections. Iraqi officials want all U.S. troops out by 2011. Republican presidential candidate John McCain has refused to set a timetable, while his Democratic opponent, Barack Obama, has pledged to withdraw all U.S. combat troops within 16 months of taking office.
Odierno must also contend with a familiar set of security challenges, which, while reduced in scale, are nonetheless troublesome. Al-Qaeda in Iraq, although significantly weakened, is still staging attacks in restive areas like the northern province of Diyala. The specter of renewed sectarian strife is also very real: a tenuous truce between Iraq's various communities will be tested early next month, when the U.S. transfers command authority over the so-called Awakening or Sahwa councils (the Sunni tribal groups that fought al-Qaeda) to the predominantly Shi'ite central government. Neither side trusts the other. Tensions between Arabs and Kurds are also on the rise in several northern districts of Iraq, as well as between al-Maliki and his Kurdish coalition partners in Baghdad. Provincial elections are to be held by the end of this year, but they cannot go ahead until a law governing them is passed. But politicians remain deadlocked over the law, unable to agree on the status of the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want to claim as part of their semi-autonomous northern region.
On the streets of Baghdad and other cities, there is mounting discontent over the poor delivery of such basic services such as water and electricity. The resentment is fueling growing apathy toward the political process and alienation from the government. Few Iraqis are hopeful that upcoming provincial elections will help improve their lot. Likewise, the change of U.S. command doesn't mean much to some Iraqis. "General Petraeus, General Odierno what difference does it make to me?" said one Iraqi working near the U.S. military base where the handover ceremony took place. Maybe he, too, was waiting for General Electric.