HEIDELBERG, Germany — Starting this week, there won’t be just one unusually large U.S. general who sports a shaved head at the helm of Multi-National Force — Iraq. There will be two.
Lt. Gen. Kenneth Hunzeker, who for the past two years and until Friday commanded V Corps, is expected to become the deputy commander of MNF-I. If confirmed, he’ll be the first U.S. officer to hold the position of deputy, replacing a British general, just as all troops from countries in the “coalition of the willing” — including Britain, Poland, and Georgia — have departed Iraq.
He is arriving just after most of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq have decamped from patrol bases in Iraq’s cities to big bases on the outskirts, the first phase of a withdrawl that is scheduled to maintain troop levels until after Iraqi elections in January, drop then to 50,000 by August, then have all U.S. troops out of Iraq by the start of 2012.
And he’ll be seeing a very different Iraq than the one he experienced the last time he served there three years ago.
“It was the worst 12 months of violence on record,” Hunzeker said. “I’m going back when violence is at an all time low.
“The challenges we faced last time were all focused on security. This time we’re focusing on transition.”
How smoothly that transition is proceeding is a matter of debate. A senior American military adviser to the Iraqi military in Baghdad, Col. Timothy Reese, recently concluded in an internal memo that relations between U.S. and Iraqi militaries are getting worse, not better, and that it’s time “for the U.S. to declare victory and go home,” according to the New York Times.
Reese’s memo also said that extending the American military presence beyond August 2010 will only fuel resentment among Iraqis.
“As the old saying goes, ‘Guests, like fish, begin to smell after three days,’” Reese wrote. “Since the signing of the 2009 Security Agreement, we are guests in Iraq, and after six years in Iraq, we now smell bad to the Iraqi nose.”
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, disagreed with that analysis, the Times said.
Hunzeker will be reporting to Odierno, a longtime friend who graduated a year after him at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and who at 6-feet-5-inches, is one inch taller. Both have shaved their heads for years.
Hunzeker will be working on two major military initiatives, he said — getting weapons, vehicles and other equipment for 130,000 troops safely out of Iraq, and ensuring Iraqi forces and remaining U.S. forces positioned in an optimum way as U.S. forces leave the country.
Another task will be to consolidate three commands — MNF-I, Multi-National Corps — Iraq and Multi-National Security Transition Command — Iraq. Those commands will become U.S. Force-Iraq, reflecting two new realities. One is the smaller number of troops, requiring less command and control. The other is the national make-up of the remaining forces.
“We really are out of multi-national partners,” Hunzeker said.
Hunzeker, who was promoted to lieutenant general and named V Corps commander in August, 2007, said he’s always wanted to go back to Iraq. When he visited two months ago, he said he found that “the performance of the Iraqi security forces is pretty good.”
Reese, the adviser, disagreed in his memo. He detailed corruption, poor management and a bowing to Shiite political pressure, the Times said. But he wrote that despite deficiencies, Iraqi security forces are now able to protect the Iraqi government.
But there has been growing concern among military commanders about a potentially explosive dispute between the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad over territory, oil and other resources.
The issues couldn’t be settled when the Iraq Constitution was drafted in 2005 — the parties couldn’t agree even which ethnicities lived there — so it was put off. A clause in the constitution, Article 140, calls for a census followed by a referendum to settle the fate of these areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk. It was supposed to take place by the end of 2007. It still hasn’t happened.
“I think clearly we have to move forward on the Article 140 issue, which has truly been a stumbling block” Hunzeker said. “It’s like any negotiation. People have to give on both sides.”