Citing the reduction in violence in most areas of Iraq in the past six to eight months, a confident but cautious Gen. David Petraeus told me Thursday that the progress in Iraq is both tenuous and reversible.
Gen. Petraeus spoke to me earlier today in an exclusive interview that will be broadcast in part today and in part Monday on the Michael Reagan radio show.
Asked about al-Queda’s presence in Iraq, and reports that the terrorist group was trying to regain its foothold in Iraq, Petraeus said that al-Queda has not yet been defeated or removed from Iraq, and that it was trying to reestablish its control of areas that Coalition forces had secured.
“Well, it’s really more that they’re trying to come back into areas of Iraq, from which have been cleared, areas that we have been striving to hold such as Anbar province. We’ve pushed them farther and farther out from the Euphrates River Valley. But that was such an important transit route for them. The Euphrates River Valley really is a dagger pointed at the heart of Baghdad, as you know, from the West, coming in from Syria. And so they’re really working very hard to try to re-establish, to put down a few roots out there in an area that they once, really largely, controlled.
“We’re seeing the same in Baghdad neighborhoods, some of the ‘Baghdad belts,’ as they’re called, the areas around Baghdad, from which they were ejected or killed or captured. And we should expect to see that. We’re watching for it. We should expect to see them try to infiltrate the police, the army, to infiltrate the concerned local citizens. We’ve found a number of instances of this. So we’ve really just got to stay very vigilant, even as we endeavor to go after al-Queda in the other areas, because they’re certainly not out of Iraq. But they are very much a presence, as I mentioned, in Mosul and Ninewa province.”
The surge in strength of American ground forces enabled Petraeus to implement a so-far successful counterinsurgency strategy that has — overall — reduced violence in Iraq by about 65% in the last six to eight months. But, he added, “…there’s a lot of tough work to do in Mosul. Frankly, there’s a lot of tough work to do throughout Iraq. Despite this progress, we are very quick to caution that it is tenuous, it is reversible. It has to be cemented by gains in the political arena, in provision of better basic services to the people, in more economic opportunities, better local governments, and all the rest of that. And those are tall orders.”
The Republican and Democratic candidates have polar opposite positions on continuing American presence in Iraq. Sen. Obama has said he’d begin withdrawing troops from Iraq immediately and would have all troops out within sixteen months. Obama hedged his bet recently, saying that if al-Queda was establishing a base in Iraq, further action might be required. Sen. Clinton has said she would, as president, begin withdrawal immediately from Iraq and task the Pentagon leaders to draft a plan for complete withdrawal. She has not yet set a time table.
Republican Sen. John McCain has staked his candidacy on success in Iraq. In his speech on the night of March 4 when he clinched the Republican nomination, McCain said, “I will defend the decision to destroy Saddam Hussein’s regime.” McCain, who is a long-time supporter of the troop surge has said repeatedly that he would keep US forces in Iraq as long as it was necessary to defeat the enemy. He said, “It’s not a matter of how long we’re in Iraq, it’s if we succeed or not.”
How soon can American forces be withdrawn if they are to be? I asked Gen. Petraeus without reference to any of the candidates’ positions. Can we — and should we — begin a comprehensive withdrawal in January 2009?
Gen. Petraeus said, “Well, it depends on what the conditions are in January. And, in fact, I think that, we right now, have quite a sensible way forward. As you know, we’re in the process of withdrawing over one-quarter of our ground combat forces. Five of our twenty brigade combat teams — plus, really, the equivalent of another brigade combat team, in terms of its combat elements, in the form of two Marine battalions and a Marine expeditionary unit — that’s already gone home, one brigade’s already gone home, another is literally packing up right now. That’s a very substantial reduction that will be complete by the end of July.”
If we do withdraw, what effect will it have on the tenuous and reversible progress that has been made? Petraeus — who is keenly aware of the strain on US forces by repeated, long deployments told me that, “…we’ve got to be very careful to not to jeopardize the gains that we and our Iraqi partners have fought so hard to achieve. And, as I mentioned, there is a fragility to the progress that we’ve made. We should expect al-Queda, to try to rebound. Al-Queda’s like a fighter that’s been dropped to the canvas a couple of times, but comes back off that canvas. And we’ve seen this. In recent months, a tragic suicide vest attack, during the recent celebration, the recent holy celebration here, during which some, between 6 to 9 million people walked to the holy shrine in Karbala, just south of Baghdad.”
I also asked Gen. Petraeus if there had been an increased level of cooperation by Iran — or any diminution of Iranian interference — surrounding the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Baghdad last weekend.
Petraeus said, “..it’s been difficult to tell, frankly. We do, with a pretty high degree of confidence, we know that the Iranians continued to train militia extremists, the so-called ‘special groups’ that are supported by the Iranian Qods Force, that are literally funded, trained, equipped, and directed by the Qods Force with help from Lebanese Hezbollah. And you may recall, we captured the deputy commander of Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2800. We captured the head of the special groups. We’ve captured other very senior leaders in those organizations in recent weeks. There’s no question but that that training continued until very recently.
Petraeus added, “…it’s important because the President of Iran and other senior members of the Iranian government, promised Prime Minister Maliki and others, when they visited Tehran, that they would absolutely stop…this assistance provided to the so-called special groups and other militia elements in Iraq. Again, at best, it appears that not all elements in the Iranian government either got that word on that promise or are carrying it out.”
To the rumors that he might be soon leave command of the Coalition forces in Iraq, he said he didn’t believe that would occur any time soon.
Gen. Petraeus also said he will present his next round of progress reports on Iraq to Congress on April 8 and 9. He will testify before the Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees in both the Senate and the House.
In September, when last he testified to those committees, Gen. Petraeus was assaulted in the press, libeled by MoveOn.org, called a liar by Hillary and still defeated them all by using the simplest tools of debate: honesty, force of character, and coolness under fire.
Next month it will only be worse. Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker will again be ridiculed by the MoveOn-dot-Democrats and their amen press chorus. And once again Petraeus and Crocker will prevail. In large part because Gen. David Petraeus is not a politician: rather, he is a brilliant and honorable man. We are very lucky to have him in command.