The new command “represents another important milestone in the drawdown of American forces,” said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of U.S. Central Command during the ceremony.
American forces will draw down by more than half in the next eight months. There are currently 110,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq today. By the end of August that number will be below 50,000, Petraeus said.
Petraeus singled out the Iraqi people and leaders for praise, saying they have proven they reject extremism and are on their way to establishing “an Iraqracracy” – democracy with an Iraqi twist.
“To be sure, none of this has been easy, and more needs to be done,” Petraeus said. Al-Qaida and Iranian-backed extremists continue to pose threats to the government and people of Iraq. But the Iraqis have sustained the security gains made since the dark days of 2007. This is the case even as coalition forces have redeployed and as U.S. forces have moved out of the cities and villages.
Petraeus especially thanked American servicemembers, saying that they have been the central pillar in all that has been accomplished in the country. “You have been the ones who translated concepts and ideas … into reality on the ground, under body armor and rucksacks, in tough conditions against adaptive, often barbaric enemies,” he said.
The command represents the continuing implementation of the U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement, said Army Gen. Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. Forces Iraq.
Odierno has spent almost four years in the Iraq, first as the commander of the 4th Infantry Division in 2003, then as the commander of Multinational Corps Iraq just before and during the surge.
“I remember back to 2006 flying over Baghdad,” he said. “I remember looking down on a city that was cloaked in darkness and gripped by fear. Then Iraq was a country caught up in a ferocious insurgency, fueled by ethno-sectarian divisions and violence.”
Odierno said the view has changed.
“Today, when I fly over Baghdad, I see hope,” he said. “Hope represented in a bustling city with bright lights, busy traffic, parks full of people and markets bursting at the seams.”
The security progress has enabled progress in other areas, allowing Iraq to build governance infrastructures to serve the Iraqi people and the stability to create jobs, Odierno said.
The re-designation of the command also highlights the increasing Iraqi control of security matters in the country, Odierno said. He noted that there are approaching 700,000 Iraqi soldiers and police in the country shouldering the security burden.
Odierno said that since 2006, every measure of security has improved. There has been a 92 percent decrease in security incidents, a 90 percent decrease in high-profile attacks and a 94 percent decrease in civilian deaths. U.S. and Iraqi security force deaths have dropped more than 90 percent.
“Today, Iraq is uplifted by a real, though fragile, sense of hope for a bright and prosperous future,” Odierno said. “We remain committed to nurturing this hope.”
American forces will remain focused on the mission and will continue to provide support to the Iraqi government and security forces, Odierno.
“Finally, I want everyone to know that I am proud to serve in the U.S. military,” Odierno said. “I am proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our Iraqi security partners, and I’m honored to help serve the Iraqi people.
“But I want to thank all the servicemembers and civilians … for their service and sacrifice. You have demonstrated exceptions bravery, boundless ingenuity and unfailing determination. You serve so other can live in peace and harmony,” he said.