WASHINGTON (AFP) — General Raymond Odierno, the hulking artillery man who takes over Tuesday as the top US commander in Iraq, is a key architect of the surge strategy that appears to have moved Iraq to the brink of peace.
General David Petraeus oversaw the surge, but it was his former deputy Odierno who first proposed it in December 2006 to a resistant Pentagon, setting the stage for what would become a pivotal turn in the unpopular war.
Odierno carried out the detailed counter-insurgency campaign that poured US troops into Baghdad, cleared Al-Qaeda insurgents from havens in communities surrounding the capital, and targeted Shiite extremists.
By the time Odierno left Iraq 15 months later, levels of violence had begun their downward plunge.
"Just as important as the surge was the change in our tactics, techniques and procedures that got us back out in the neighborhoods," Odierno told reporters at the end of his tour in March.
"Our mantra was protect the population, protect the citizens of Iraq," he said.
The six-foot-five (1.99-meter) Odierno cuts an imposing figure.
A West Point graduate from New Jersey, he rose through the ranks of the army artillery, serving in the first Gulf War in 1991 and as deputy commander of an army task force in Albania during the NATO air war over Kosovo in 1999.
He also served as military assistant to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, and as a military adviser to Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice between tours in Iraq.
Odierno's embrace of the new counter-insurgency strategy marked an apparent conversion for the general, who was sharply criticized for running roughshod over civilians during his first tour in Iraq as commander of the US 4th Infantry Division in 2003-2004 in the area around Tikrit.
Odierno's forces succeeded in capturing deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but contrary to US expectations it had little impact on an already flourishing insurgency against the US occupation.
By some accounts, the strong arm tactics used by the general, including mass arrests and cordoning off of villages, had by then deeply alienated the Sunni population and fanned the insurgency.
Odierno has said his critics fail to recognize how dangerous the region was.
"I don't think I was perfect, and I made some mistakes," Odierno told the Washington Post. "But I think I was mischaracterized."
However, he has said he learned from his experience and those of his subordinate commanders, who he says have thought deeply about conflict after repeated combat tours.
"You know, when you're there every day, you get a feel for things," he told reporters in March.
"You understand, you get a feel for how the Iraqi security forces are improving. You get a feel for the threat. You get a feel for how economic development is, and you use that with the assessments of subordinate commanders to give your assessment to the chain of command."
When he takes the reins from Petraeus on Tuesday in a military ceremony in Iraq, Odierno will be entrusted with the crucially important "end game" in Iraq at a time of political transition at home.
Odierno, whose appointment was seen as a guarantee of continuity, has argued consistently against sharp cut backs in US troop levels in Iraq, warning of the risk of reversals.
And he will have a supporter in Petraeus, who moves to head the US Central Command, which oversees US military operations throughout the region.
But the 146,000-strong US force in Iraq will shrink by about 8,000 troops by January, when Bush turns over the presidency to his successor, and pressures for further reductions are likely to intensify as attention shifts toward Afghanistan.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad Monday, said Odierno would head "a mission in transition" in Iraq.
"There is no question we will still be engaged as we are, but the areas in which we are seriously engaged will, I think, continue to narrow," Gates told reporters on the flight to Baghdad.
"And the challenge for General Odierno is, how do we work with the Iraqis to preserve the gains that have already been achieved, and expand upon them even as the number of US forces are shrinking."
Responsibility for security of 11 of Iraq's 18 provinces has already been turned over to Iraqis, and Gates said a couple more would probably join them by the end of the year.
"So it's a transition from a focus on the surge brigades and the surge strategy to more Iraqi units in the lead, and us in more of an overwatch role," he said.
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