Petraeus to Hand Over Iraq Command Sept 16

Baghdad -- U.S. General David Petraeus will hand the command of U.S.-led forces in Iraq to General Raymond Odierno on September 16, his spokesman said Sunday.

"He will hand over the command on September 16 in Baghdad," Colonel Steven Boylan said.

Petraeus will take over as the new chief of Central Command in late October, with responsibility for U.S. troops from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia, including live conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, Boylan said.

The expected shift will come at a time when pressure is growing to beef up the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, where the level of violence is now said to be higher than in Iraq.

In July, Petraeus was approved by the U.S. Senate to head Central Command after Admiral William Fallon abruptly stepped down from the post in March, saying that reports describing him as at odds with the White House over how to deal with Iran had become "a distraction."

About 144,000 U.S. soldiers are currently on the ground in Iraq, but that number could decrease in coming months.

Before leaving Iraq, Petraeus will offer to U.S. President George W. Bush his recommendations on troop cuts in Iraq amid a reported drop in violence which is currently at a four-year low.

Petraeus, the architect of the troop surge strategy, arrived here in February last year with the launch of a surge of 30,000 U.S. troops.

Aside from having more troops at his disposal, Petraeus also embarked on a counter-insurgency strategy that underscored the importance of winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

His strategy demanded that U.S. soldiers engage with and respect citizens while relentlessly pursuing Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

Washington withdrew five combat brigades that were deployed as part of the surge.

On Thursday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Petraeus said U.S. combat troops could be out of Baghdad by July 2009 "conditions permitting."

"The number of attacks in Baghdad lately has been, gosh, I think it's probably less than five (a day) on average, and that's a city of seven million people," he said.

He told the London-based business daily that Iraq was a "dramatically changed country" since he took over in February 2007, pointing to a "degree of hope that was not present 19 months ago."

Petraeus insisted, however, that "innumerable challenges" still remain.

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