WASHINGTON (Dec. 9, 2009) — On the eve of holding parliamentary elections early next year, Iraq continues to make steady progress as a sovereign country that is a valued U.S. ally in the Middle East, the commander of Multinational Force Iraq said in Killeen, Texas, Monday.

“Today, Iraq is a nascent democracy that is rebuilding its strategic depth as a regional power in the Middle East,” Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said at an Association of the United States Army-sponsored event held in the city that hosts the Fort Hood Army base.

Iraq also remains of vital interest to the United States, Odierno said, noting its strategic location makes it “a crucial link” between America’s allies along the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea.

“Over the past several years, we have continued to make deliberate and steady progress in Iraq,” Odierno said. Current levels of violence in Iraq, he said, are at the lowest point since 2003.

2009 “has been another transformative year for the Iraqi people,” Odierno said, as Iraqis prepare to hold parliamentary elections in January.

“As I travel around Iraq, I can sense a feeling of great anticipation for these elections and the hope for continued progress,” Odierno said. “We are witnessing the principles of democracy take hold in Iraq as Iraqis establish the foundations of their own representative government in accordance with their own constitution.”

Iraqis, like Americans, desire a better future for their families — especially for their children, Odierno said.

Iraq’s citizens, the general added, also recognize that “the ability to vote in credible and legitimate elections is a significant step in choosing leaders who will make the right choices which will allow Iraq to move forward.”

Meanwhile, Iraq slowly is re-establishing diplomatic, economic and security relationships with its Middle East neighbors, Odierno said, and has formalized its partnership with the United States through agreements that were signed about a year ago.

The strategic framework agreement established principles of U.S.-Iraqi cooperation in the realms of politics, defense, diplomacy, security, culture, economics, energy, health and environment, law enforcement and judiciary functions and information technology and communications.

The 30-article status-of-forces agreement acknowledges that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq is temporary and at the request of the sovereign Iraqi government. Article 24 requires U.S. forces to withdraw from all Iraqi territory no later than Dec. 31, 2011.

Under the terms of the agreement, U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi municipalities and villages on June 30.

“The security agreement fundamentally altered how we conduct operations in Iraq, clearly putting Iraqi forces in the lead,” Odierno said. “All military operations were conducted by, with and through the Iraqi security forces, according to their rule of law — their rule of law established by their constitution.”

These agreements, he said, established the foundation for a comprehensive strategic partnership between Iraq and the United States. The pact, he added, recognizes Iraqi sovereignty and demonstrates “America’s continued commitment to Iraq, its people and overall stability of the region.”

The security agreement recognized the progress that had been made in Iraq, Odierno said, including the increased capability of Iraqi security forces. As Iraqi security forces took the lead, he said, U.S. and coalition forces were able to maintain operational momentum against violent extremist networks bent on halting progress in Iraq.

Today, the Iraqis are well on their way toward assuming full responsibility for their security, Odierno said.

“The Iraqis wanted the responsibility, and they have demonstrated that they are capable,” he said. Overall security incidents in Iraq have decreased by 83 percent over the past two years, he said, while U.S. military deaths have decreased by more than 90 percent.

Improvised-explosive-device attacks in Iraq have decreased nearly 80 percent during the same time, Odierno said, noting car bombings and suicide-vest attacks decreased by 92 percent.

This November featured the lowest monthly number of incidents and civilian deaths in Iraq on record since the war began in 2003, Odierno said.

Meanwhile, the still-dangerous al-Qaida in Iraq terrorist network has been degraded, Odierno said, noting its foreign component has dwindled to a few individuals and its funding has been reduced by 50 percent.

Al-Qaida in Iraq now is forced to protect its leaders, Odierno said, while husbanding its reduced resources to focus on making periodic spectacular attacks.

And though al-Qaida cannot terrorize Iraqi citizens on a consistent basis, Odierno said, the group still can mount high-profile bombings, such as today’s multiple attacks near Iraqi government sites in Baghdad. Today’s bombings followed similar terror attacks that occurred in October and August.

The recent Iraq terror bombings represent “an attempt to undermine public faith and confidence in the new government,” Odierno said. These attacks fail, he said, because they only serve to harden Iraqi resolve against al-Qaida in Iraq and terrorism.

“The Iraqis know that holding credible and legitimate national elections, followed by a peaceful transition of power, are the strongest possible responses to any terrorist or insurgent network that wishes to use violence” as a means of sabotaging Iraq’s progress, Odierno said.

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