As Iraqis went to the polls last week, there was one noticeable absence on the streets: U.S. troops. For the first time since 2003, Iraqi forces handled security for all voting sites—an important step in a process that, if it goes as planned, will reduce the number of American soldiers in the country to 50,000 by August. The man overseeing the drawdown is Gen. Ray Odierno, the longest-serving U.S. military commander in Iraq. He spoke last week with NEWSWEEK's Babak Dehghanpisheh. Excerpts:
What did you think of the turnout?
I had a chance to fly around to quite a few places, and it was really interesting to see that all Iraqis were voting. It was young, old, and all the different groups: Sunni, Shia, Kurds.
Were you surprised by the number of attacks carried out?
I was surprised by what they weren't able to do. All the intelligence we had said that they were going to focus on suicide bombs and that they were going to go after everyone in line. In reality what happened was there was not one suicide bomb. They had to completely change their strategy because of the Iraqi security forces. What they did is they attempted to intimidate. [But] the Iraqi people came out to vote.
How confident are you that Iraqi politicians now will quickly form a government?
A lot depends on the results, on how much difference there is between the different blocs. If one group has a significant lead, it might be a little easier.
How influential was Iran in these elections?
I think a lot of people were trying to impact the outcome. No matter how much a lot of these countries tried, however, they did not have a lot of impact. Which I think is very, very good and something that will not be lost on politicians here.
What do you think is the biggest threat in this transition period?
I think the main thing is that the process moves forward, and that the people see it as credible and legitimate. And that they feel that all the votes were counted and all the votes were accredited. There will be violence. But I don't think we'll see any significant increase.
Are you confident that the Iraqi security forces can handle any situation that comes up?
We were very proud of the work of all the Iraqi security forces during the elections. We had almost zero complaints of the Army or police interfering. They acted neutral. They knew their job is to secure the people of Iraq. In the old Iraq, the Army was used to protect the regime. On [Sunday] they proved again how they've shifted. They are now an Army that protects the people.
How is the drawdown process coming along for the U.S. military?
We know how to do this. We have sent out millions of pieces of equipment. We have a very good plan in place. We've already closed hundreds of bases. And we are on track. I believe that by Sept. 1 we'll be at approximately 50,000 people.
Are you worried about stepped-up attacks as the U.S. military gets on the road?
Of course. But in the past year we've reduced by about 50,000 and we haven't seen any increased attacks on the roads.
How many U.S. troops do you think will be left behind in Iraq in five years?
We have an agreement that says we'll be down to zero by the end of 2011. What I see beyond 2011, if we do anything at all, would be what I call a security assistance mission. The government of Iraq first has to ask us. And if they do it'll be like [agreements] we have with other countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Kuwait. I don't see the presence of any combat forces in Iraq.