Why was top US general late for his own press conference? Iraqi security.
An Iraqi government spokesman's opening line was meant comically, but rang true. The country's military leaders and officials are increasingly emphasizing Iraqi independence.
Two weeks before Iraqi security forces take full control of the cities, the most telling comment in a major press conference by Gen. Ray Odierno and senior Iraqi officials Monday was the joke that preceded the event.
"We apologize for being late – the American general needed permission to enter the building," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told reporters who had waited for two hours at the prime ministry complex.
As the June 30 deadline approaches for US combat troops to be out of the cities, Iraqi military leaders, officials, and ordinary security people have been increasingly emphasizing Iraqi independence in ways large and small. The perimeter of Baghdad's Green Zone is now under Iraqi control, and Iraqi forces recently exercised for the first time their right to detain US contractors accused of crimes here.
At Monday's press conference, Mr. Dabbagh – along with the Iraqi defense minister and interior minister – hailed June 30 as a day that would go down in history along with the anniversary of the Iraqi revolution. The officials reiterated the ways in which Iraqis would see even less of a US military presence in their streets.
"There will be limited missions and limited movement for American forces," said Dabbagh. "There will be no combat missions unless requested by the government of Iraq."
General Odierno told reporters that most troops have already pulled out of Iraqi cities and the remainder would be out by the June 30 deadline in the security agreement negotiated with Iraq, known as the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA).
"US combat forces will leave the cities by June 30 and it will be a great day for the Iraqi people," said Odierno.
Odierno 'much more comfortable' with Iraqi forces' ability
The US general had said in April that he expected the Iraqi government to ask US troops to stay past June 30 in Mosul and Diyala, where Iraqi forces are still fighting an active insurgency. Most Iraqi military leaders agreed they needed more time.
Nonmilitary US officials privately say those statements contributed to a backlash in the Iraqi government, resulting in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's insistence that US troops should leave those cities as well.
US military leaders have since been reluctant to say anything at all on the subject of the security agreement, and on Monday Odierno said recent Iraqi Army operations had made him "much more comfortable" about the prospect of Iraqi forces holding their own in Mosul.
The US general reiterated that attacks continued to remain relatively low due to the success of the US and Iraqi military surge in 2007 and that the country has seen a drop in foreign fighters entering Iraq over the last eight to 10 months.
"The dark days of previous years are behind us," Odierno said.
Defense minister: Still need US for air support
The US has drawn down to 130,000 servicemen from 160,000 during the surge and will continue to reduce those numbers until it pulls out of Iraq entirely – scheduled to take place by the end of 2011 under SOFA. Odierno said there were still 320 US bases in Iraq – a reduction from the 460 they had held before closing or handing over bases within cities and towns. The general said that number would continue to drop this year.
The rare press conference by Odierno with Iraqi leaders was held under intensely tight security, reflecting the persistent threat to Iraqi government officials and Baghdad's still fragile security.
Baghdad's Green Zone is now secured on the outer perimeters by Iraqi forces and inside by Peruvian guards contracted to a private American security firm. After exhaustive searches in the 110-degree F. heat to enter the Green Zone, reporters told to show up two hours in advance were put through a series of other checks.
At the last entry point to the government press center, security guards placed banned cellphones and tape recorders for safekeeping next to dozens of pistols checked by their owners.