BAGHDAD, September 16, 2008 (AFP) – General Raymond Odierno, the towering artillery man who took over on Tuesday as the top US commander in Iraq, is a key architect of the surge which has sharply reduced violence in the country.
The six-foot-five (1.96-metre) Odierno, who sports a shaved head, cuts an imposing figure and already has two tours of duty in Iraq under his belt.
A West Point graduate from New Jersey, he rose through the ranks of army artillery, served in the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait and was 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 Condoleezza Rice between tours in Iraq.
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.
The takeover from Petraeus to Odierno comes as Washington faces the challenge of pulling out and handing over to Iraqi forces without leaving behind a security void.
"He is the perfect man for the job," Petraeus said at the handover.
His successor said he has no illusions about the tough task ahead. "Iraq is now a different country from the one I had seen first. However, we must realise that these gains are fragile and reversible," the new commander said.
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 neighbourhoods," Odierno told reporters at the end of his tour in March.
"Our mantra was protect the population, protect the citizens of Iraq," said the decorated general, who earned a fourth star with his new command.
His embrace of the new counter-insurgency strategy marked an apparent conversion for Odierno, who was sharply criticised 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 in December 2003, 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 villages, had by then deeply alienated the Sunni population and fanned the insurgency.
Odierno has said his critics fail to recognise how dangerous the region was at the time.
After having taken the reins from Petraeus in a military ceremony in Baghdad, Odierno is now being entrusted with the crucially important "end game" in Iraq at a time of political transition at home.
Odierno, whose appointment is being seen as a guarantee of continuity, has argued consistently against sharp cutbacks 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, with attention shifting toward Afghanistan.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, who made a surprise visit to Baghdad Monday, said Odierno would head "a mission in transition."
"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."