March 9, 2009 -- The following is a transcript of an exclusive ABC News interview with Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq. At a U.S. base outside the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the general told ABC News' senior foreign affairs correspondent Martha Raddatz's that continuing the fight against insurgents in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul might cause U.S. troops to stay in the city past a June 30 deadline for all U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities, but only if the Iraqi government made such a request.
MARTHA RADDATZ: Gen. Odierno, let's just start with the drawdown that President Obama announced, 19 months total. How will that work?
GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: First off, it's a combination of several things. First, it's in line with the security agreement that we signed. I think it shows how we have slowly transitioned from counter insurgency to a more of a stability type operation across the country and so this will help us implement that, and I think it's on track with how we're going to implement that. So what you'll see is, is we'll slowly move to more stability operations across the country. I would tell you that today we're probably at about 75% of Iraq already into, majority stability operations, but 25% we still have counter insurgency going on. And I think it's going to take us 19 months to finish up the counter insurgency work we have to do and completely transition to a stability operations. I think it's in line with that based on our estimates now.
RADDATZ: In terms of moving brigades, you've got 2 brigades that won't be replaced, but that will be the only movement this year?
ODIERNO: Unclear. What I'll do this year is I'm going to bring out about 12,500 soldiers which is both combat troops and enablers, that will move between now and July. I will do another assessment in the fall to decide if I want to bring anything else out this year. The consideration is the national elections. What the announcement and the strategy has given me is the flexibility to decide whether I want to hold more through the national elections, do I want to send some more back before the national elections, that would be based on the situation on the ground.
RADDATZ: Those are scheduled now for?
ODIERNO: Well, I have an option, actually. The schedule now is for me to make a decision sometime in September to decide whether I go down another brigade or not.
RADDATZ: I mean, the national elections.
ODIERNO: I'm sorry. The national elections are scheduled right now for December, they could go as late as January.
RADDATZ: So, if you didn't bring out another brigade in the fall, you'd have at least 80,000 troops to move out of here from January or February through August?
ODIERNO: Yeah, I'd say about 70,000. We'd probably be at about 120,000 at that time down to 50,000 by August. But, I think we have a good plan in place to do that. And I think, again, I feel very comfortable that the window of risk is between October and February-March of 2010. And that will allow us then to do a more detailed and quick withdrawal of forces out of Iraq, because I think we will have gone through the toughest part and we'll be in a real stable stage that will enable us to do that very quickly.
RADDATZ: And would the plan be 10,000 a month, stagger it?
ODIERNO: We're working our way through that. It will be based again on what we think the conditions are and again we could move some out earlier if we think the conditions are good enough. If not, we will move them, staggered each month and it will be an even amount each month as we move out and we'll do it based on the least vulnerable to the most vulnerable.
RADDATZ: I suspect where we're sitting today, in the North would probably be the last area to move out.
ODIERNO: Yeah, I would say it would be based on, again, and we'll work this with the government of Iraq by the way too. I'll work this with the Prime Minister and we'll decide together where we think we need coalition forces ... and probably areas in the north, around Mosul, Kirkuk, in Diyala will be some of the last areas we leave. We will leave some presence across the entire country, though. It will thin out and will thin out more in some of the areas than, say, we do in the north. And so we'll leave presence throughout Iraq because we want to do training and advising even after August in all areas, but we'll thin it out slowly across the entire country, slower in some places than in others.
RADDATZ: You'll go out through Turkey?
ODIERNO: We could. I think you know, we'll go out through, you know, we're working to go out through Kuwait, maybe through Jordan, and maybe through Turkey. We'll decide that as it goes, it depends on how much we have to do at one time and how much the ports can handle in each one of these places. There's still some work that has to be done between the countries and once we figure that out we'll develop a plan. If we had to we could send everything through Kuwait but we will develop options to use both Jordan and Turkey along with Kuwait. And we'll also use the port of Umm Qasar here in Iraq as well.
RADDATZ: June 30th, the agreement calls for US troops to be out of the cities. What does that mean?
ODIERNO: Well, it means we'll move all of our combat outposts out of the cities, we've submitted a list of bases that will remain in that will be out of the city on the periphery or out of the cities and we'll be in those and we'll work out of those areas. We're still working with the government of Iraq to define what that means. We're in the implementation phase of the security agreement. We'll still provide advising and training to Iraqi units, so we'll have some embeds with Iraqi units. We'll still continue to do logistics. We'll still help them to deliver fires or help them with planning in some areas.
RADDATZ: Do we still patrol?
ODIERNO: No. probably not. Again, we'll be embedded with their units to provide them support when needed. And that will be something that we work through. But, I think inside of the cities, we'll be limited in what we do. But it will be agreed to, we are still working through what that means. Because they want us to support them, we just gotta figure out how we are going to do that.
RADDATZ: And in terms of places like Mosul, Diyala or other places that are more unstable, we will still not have combat outposts? So you don't have the same sort of presence?
ODIERNO: Well, it depends. Again, our strategy is the Joint Security Stations stay and the Iraqis man these combat outposts. The Iraqis could ask us to stay in Mosul after June 30th, but that will be their decision, based on their assessment of the situation and based on what, if they ask us to stay we will probably stay and help them out, if they ask us to just provide them the advising and training support, then we'll do that. So there are still some decisions that have to be made.
RADDATZ: You gave the President three options, the most conservative 24 months ... to 16 months.
ODIERNO: Well what we did is first on January 21st, second day he asked for an update. We gave him an update on Iraq, Ambassador Crocker and I. At that time he asked us for three options. The 16 month, 19 month and 23 month options. So we laid that out with all the risks associated with each option. But the one thing I tell everybody is that it wasn't just that, it was also the residual force after the drawdown and then we gave a couple of options on the residual force. So it was a combination of those two events that he made his decision.
RADDATZ: And the different options on the residual force, is that what we have heard, 35-50,000 or were there greater options?
ODIERNO: I think the options were a 35,000 option or a 50,000 option.
RADDATZ: You are completely comfortable about where we ended up?
ODIERNO: I am. Because I feel I have been given enough flexibility to finish what we need to do. To transition from counterinsurgency to stability and then meet the timeline to move our forces out and then we have a residual force that will continue to train and advise and build capacity within Iraq which I think will move Iraq forward. The key piece for me was getting through the national elections and I think this allows me the flexibility to ensure we get through the national elections.
RADDATZ: And that residual force as you call it ... I know the president has said we'll get all combat troops out, but they are all combat trained troops. What exactly does that residual force...
ODIERNO: I would just say, I think we are calling it transition force now. And I think the transition force ... it's about a mission, it's not about whose doing it, it's a change in mission. We will no longer do combat operations. We always have a requirement to protect ourselves, I owe that to the mothers and fathers, I owe that to our country to make sure we are able to protect ourselves, and so we'll maintain the capacity to protect ourselves. So it's not so much whose doing it but the type of mission we're doing.
RADDATZ: What does that mean you no longer do combat operations? Does that mean you no longer go after high value targets, does that mean you no longer go after weapons caches?
ODIERNO: That means first of all, we'll do some? we'll no longer do conventional combat operations, we will do some counter terrorism operations, in coordination with the government of Iraq, that was clearly what the President said when he developed, announced his plan. So we'll continue to do counter terrorism operations in coordination with the government of Iraq, but our conventional combat operations will end and we'll be conducting purely stability operations, training and advising both operationally and institutionally, and then along with that, we will help our non-governmental organizations, United Nations, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams to continue to build civil capacity.
RADDATZ: And you believe we will be completely out of here by 2011?
ODIERNO: We will. We have signed an agreement that says we will be and I think we're on track to do that.
RADDATZ: But that could change? If the Iraqis want it to change?
ODIERNO: It's their decision. It's a decision that they have to make. But I don't see them making that decision right now.
RADDATZ: But would you still say it's conditions-based, until then?
ODIERNO: No, I think it's based on an Iraqi assessment. Again, if we stayed ... Again, our plan is to be out of here by December, 2011. That's the agreement we signed and we will meet those requirements. What, if the government of Iraq asks us, if they ask us to stay, want to renegotiate, then we'll go through renegotiation and we'll decide at that time what that means.
RADDATZ: I guess I look at other places and I look at Bosnia where we were for ten years and they weren't even shooting at each other then, and in terms of stability, being out by 2011 seems pretty rapid.
ODIERNO: Well, again, I think that's a judgment that will have to be made later on.
RADDATZ: And right now as we sit here and you look into the future, as we draw down, what are your concerns about who might fill that void, what challenges you face?
ODIERNO: Well, again, we do a constant assessment and I think the Iraqi security forces have continued to improve significantly. The Iraqi Army has continued to build their competencies. The Iraqi Special Operations force have built their competencies. The National Police have improved, they have made a complete change and improved significantly. So I think they can fill the gap. In the long term, we hope that the police will fill that gap, and then the Army will turn to external security. I'm not sure we'll see that, though, in the next 18 month. I think the Army will still be required to fill our role as we disengage. But I think just us being here to continue to support them through 2011 will allow them to continue to develop.
RADDATZ: Do you believe the US will leave successful?
ODIERNO: Well, I think we're on track to achieve our objectives here. I think our objectives are a secure, stable, sovereign Iraq. Iraq that has good governance for the Iraqi people. An Iraq that will be a strategic partner for the United States. I think we have an opportunity to leave successful by meeting those objectives.
RADDATZ: Last question. If the situation worsens, if it really deteriorates, we can't say we're going to stay longer, it's all up to the Iraqis?
ODIERNO: Well, I think, fundamentally we would have to ask them and get approval based on the security agreement, if we wanted to stay longer. Again, that would be something we would have to work out with them. Again, I think we're headed in the right direction, I don't see that happening, but you never say never as we say in this business.
RADDATZ: What do we leave behind?
ODIERNO: Again, what we want to leave behind here is a secure, stable, Iraq.
RADDATZ: (What do we take out of Iraq ) in terms of equipment? In terms of what do we take with us I guess.
ODIERNO: The bottom line is we'll leave behind things like construction materials, we'll leave behind some infrastructure pieces, we want to … the places, the infrastructure we have used for our army and some of our air forces here, we'll turn those over to the government of Iraq. In terms of military equipment, I expect we'll be taking almost all of our military equipment back with us over time. There might some minor things we leave behind, but we'll have to work through that. So, I would say there is millions of dollars worth of infrastructure that will be able to help them for their military get on their feet, but in terms of equipment, I think we'll take most of the equipment with us.
RADDATZ: Can you believe we are going to get out of here some day?
ODIERNO: (Laughing) I'm hoping.