U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno headed into retirement Friday amid controversy over his recent remarks on Iraq that were challenged by the Baghdad government, the State Department and now U.S. Central Command.
When asked if CentCom agreed with Odierno's assessment that the campaign against Islamic militants in Iraq was essentially at a "stalemate," Air Force Col. Pat Ryder, the chief spokesman for the command, said Friday, "No, I don't agree with that."
In an audio briefing to Pentagon reporters, Ryder said that coalition airstrikes backing the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the Kurdish peshmerga forces had reduced the areas controlled by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria by 25-30 percent.
"It's going to be a long fight," he said, but "I think we are continuing to put pressure on ISIL," another acronym for ISIS.
In his final Pentagon news conference on Wednesday, Odierno also riled the Baghdad government of President Haider al-Abadi by suggesting the possibility that the sectarian rifts at the root of Iraq's political divides might lead to the partition of the country into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish sectors.
"I think we have to deal with ISIL first, and then we have to decide what it will look like afterwards," but "that is something that could happen," Odierno said of partition. "It might be the only solution, but I'm not ready to say that yet."
Abadi's office on Thursday put out a statement calling Odierno's comment on partition "irresponsible." The statement added that "Iraqis are making sacrifices to strengthen the unity of their country and defend it."
The State Department also responded to Odierno's remarks, saying that "the United States believes a unified Iraq is a stronger Iraq. We also believe a unified Iraq is important to the stability of the region."
The controversy appeared to be forgotten at the formal change-of-command ceremony Friday at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, where Odierno stepped down as the 38th Army chief of staff and was succeeded by Gen. Mark Milley.
Odierno said he was leaving to Milley an Army "feared by our enemies" and admired by allies. Milley said of the 6-foot-5 soldier, "You are in fact a giant of a man," as well as a "moral giant" who "led the Army through difficult times" in the drawdowns from Iraq and Afghanistan and in the budget battles with Congress.
Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, glossed over his own occasional disagreements with Odierno to note that "our Nation has been blessed with leaders who have come forward at the right time to master moments of challenge. Gen. Odierno has been one of those leaders, a consummate soldier for the times in which he served."
In a statement, McCain called Odierno "an effective wartime commander in Iraq who helped take down and capture Saddam Hussein and defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq as one of the primary architects of the surge."
Odierno also "spoke honestly about the damage being done to the Army by dangerous defense cuts," the senator said. "Amid such budgetary constraints, he challenged his service to adapt, evolve and innovate to create an Army of the future," the senator said.
In reflecting on his 39 years in uniform, Odierno at the Pentagon on Wednesday dwelled on those "difficult times" in Iraq, where he served 55 months on three tours – the last as commander of the Multi-National Force from 2008-10.
In the process, Odierno touched on the current debate among the Republican and Democratic candidates for the presidential nominations on whether the rise of ISIS could have been prevented if U.S. troops had not withdrawn at the beginning of 2011.
"It is frustrating to look at what has happened inside of Iraq," he said. "I believe that a couple years ago in 2010-11, we had it in a place that was really headed in the right direction. Violence was down, the economy was growing, the politics were OK."
However, "the political factions just simply weren't able to work together, and based on that, people became frustrated. When people become frustrated, they tend to turn to violence if there is no other way for them to get their point," he said. Odierno said it was impossible to gauge whether the Obama administration could have tried harder to negotiate a deal with the Baghdad government to have U.S. troops stay after 2011.
"I don't think it's black and white. I think it is gray," he said. "I think the military options we conducted provided an opportunity for us to be successful" but "I remind everybody that us leaving at the end of 2011 was negotiated in 2008 by the (President George W.) Bush administration."
"And that was always the plan," he added. "We had promised that we would respect their sovereignty, and so I think based on that, that was always our plan."
Odierno said Wednesday that he was "frustrated" by what has happened in Iraq since the troop withdrawals. His frustrations have been examined at length by his former political advisor Emma Sky, the British Mideast specialist, in recent articles and in her book, "The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq."
Odierno told her, "My greatest fear is that we stabilize Iraq, then hand it over to the Iranians in our rush to the exit," Sky wrote. "I've invested too much here to simply walk away and let that happen."
The general argued for keeping 20,000 U.S. troops in Iraq but was denied by then-Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki and several in the Obama administration, including Vice President Joe Biden, according to Sky.
Now, "There is little willingness to reflect on or take responsibility for what happened there" in Iraq, Sky wrote. "Politicians try to use the situation in Iraq for political advantage, without much consideration of actual Iraqis -- Democrats blame Republicans for invading Iraq in the first place and Republicans blame Democrats for not leaving troops there."
Sky's book has generally received glowing reviews, although the Irish Times called it a "war selfie" by an author enamored of her minor role in power politics.
Odierno avoided the politics in his farewell remarks at the change-of-command ceremony. Instead, the New York Yankees fan sought to stick it to Milley, whose beloved Red Sox now trail the Yankees by 12 games.
Milley responded that "I have a special place in my heart for the Yankees, and that would be second place."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@military.com