|CAMP VICTORY, Iraq, Sept. 16, 2008 - Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno assumed command of Multinational Force Iraq from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus during a ceremony at al Faw Palace here today.
The change of command occurs after incredible progress in the country, said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who traveled to Baghdad to participate in the ceremony.
"When General Petraeus took charge 19 months ago, darkness had descended on this land," the secretary said. "Merchants of chaos were gaining strength. Death was commonplace. Around the world, questions mounted about whether a new strategy – or any strategy, for that matter – could make a real difference."
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that a national intelligence estimate in January 2007 doubted whether Iraq could reconcile over 18 months.
"Here we are, 18 months later, and Iraq is a vastly different place," Mullen said during the ceremony. "Attacks are at their lowest point in four years, 11 of 18 provinces have been turned over – including the once-written-off Anbar province – to Iraqi security forces, who are increasingly capable and taking more of a lead in operations."
The Iraqi government is providing for its people, the legislature is passing laws and the courts are enforcing justice, the chairman said. "In more places and on more faces we are seeing hope; we see progress," the admiral said.
Mullen said he looks forward to working with Petraeus as the general takes over the reins of U.S. Central Command next month.
Petraeus put all the credit for the progress in Iraq at the feet of "the men and women of the coalition and with the many courageous diplomats and Iraqis with whom we have served."
Petraeus thanked the Iraqi civilian and military leaders for their leadership. "You have risked everything to help your country make the most of the opportunity that our forces and yours have fought so hard to provide," he said.
The Iraqi people also have made the strategy work, standing with the new Iraq against extremism, Petraeus said.
"You've endured tragic losses and countless hardships, but you've begun the process of repairing the fabric of a society ripped apart by the horrific sectarian violence of 2006 and into 2007," he said. "There will always be a place in my heart for the 'Land of the Two Rivers' and the people of Iraq."
Petraeus noted that when he took command he told coalition servicemembers that the situation in Iraq was "hard, but not hopeless." The coalition and Iraqi partners stemmed the tide of violence and helped Iraq step back from civil war, Petraeus said.
"Al-Qaida in Iraq, though still lethal and dangerous, is on the run and reduced in capability," the general said, "and militia activity – while still a threat as well – has been reduced dramatically."
Coalition troops adopted the counterinsurgency strategy wholeheartedly, and they played unconventional roles to bring about change in the land, Petraeus said. "You have, in short, been builders as well as guardians, statesmen as well as warriors," he said.
Odierno, who is beginning his third tour in Iraq, served under Petraeus as commander of Multinational Corps Iraq. Gates said the pair formed "an incredible team" in putting the troop surge and the new counterinsurgency strategy to work, and that Odierno "knows that we are at a pivotal moment where progress remains fragile and caution should be the order of the day."
"And as we proceed further into the endgame here," Gates continued, "I am sure he will make tough, but necessary, decisions to protect our national interest."
Petraeus will take command of U.S. Central Command in late October