An agreement that took effect in January calls for U.S. troops to cease combat operations and reduce their presence in Iraq to 50,000 by Aug. 31, 2010. All U.S. combat forces are scheduled to be out of the country by Dec. 31, 2011.
"Although challenges remain in Iraq, with the continued support of Congress and the American people, I believe we are now in reach of our goals," Army Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, said.
About 122,000 military members are deployed in Iraq now, and by next month that number will decrease by 2,000, a milestone Odierno said is "faster than anticipated." This is a reduction of more than 40,000 troops since 2008, he added, and the reduction to 50,000 troops also may happen sooner than the August target.
The first sign that a quicker U.S. drawdown was possible came on June 30, Odierno said, when U.S. forces moved out of the city centers and Iraqi security forces took full responsibility of security. Iraqi forces have handled the responsibilities well despite sporadic insurgent attempts to undermine progress, he added, and attack levels are down to levels unseen since the summer of 2003.
Overall attacks, U.S. and Iraqi deaths, and sectarian murders have declined greatly since August 2007, when more than 4,000 attacks took place, Odierno said. This month, he noted, fewer than 600 attacks. U.S. military deaths decreased by 93 percent and Iraqi military deaths by 79 percent in the same period, he added, and sectarian-related murders fell by nearly 90 percent.
"While statistics do not paint the whole picture, they help provide some context in understanding the progress made to date," he said, noting that insurgent efforts to derail that progress are failing.
"The overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people reject extremism," the general said. "We have seen no indications of a return to the sectarian violence that plagued Iraq in 2006 and 2007."
Odierno cautioned, however, that the transition to full Iraqi control must be done responsibly. He cited the need to continue U.S. efforts in training security forces and helping to establish government processes. Although progress is evident, he said, security is not yet enduring.
"There still remains underlying, unresolved sources of potential conflict," he said. "Iraq is a nascent democracy emerging from 30 years of authoritarian rule based on ethno-sectarian privilege. Its future as a stable, multi-ethnic, representative state rests upon its ability to deal with the myriad of these challenges, and some of these issues will take time to resolve."
Iraq has the potential to build a capable government, representative of all Iraqis, the general explained, but potential also exists for societal divisions like those of the old Iraq, where religious sect and affiliation had its privileges.
"Even as Iraq's political system continues to mature, there is not yet consensus ... that is accepted across ethnic, sectarian and regional lines," he said.
Decades of neglect to the country's infrastructure are another area of concern. But Iraqi institutions and essential services continue to improve, Odierno said.
Probably the No. 1 "driver of instability" that could be trouble for Iraq is the Arab-Kurd boundary dispute in northern Iraq, the general said. The conflict has been ongoing for centuries, but is being addressed by a special United Nations commission. Odierno said he believes a resolution will occur by the next Iraqi elections in January.
Despite these challenges, Odierno said, withdrawal plans continue. U.S. troops already have handed over the keys or closed more than 200 bases, he said.
"We have spent a lot of money and personal sacrifice [in Iraq]," he said. "Security is heading in the right direction, and we don't want to lose that. Keeping troops through 2011 allows [the Iraqis] to establish their new government."
Even after U.S. forces leave Iraq, continued partnership with the country and its government is the overall concern, he added.
"We have an opportunity here to have a long-term strategic partner," he said. "It's about strategic patience. Even after we leave in 2011, we can't say Iraq is finished. We also need to continue to support them in some way beyond 2011, developing institutions. We contribute to our national security in the process."