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Gen. David Petraeus, shown here in Ramadi, Iraq, earlier this month, says the "surge" in U.S. troops in Iraq is proving effective, particularly against Al-Qaida-in-Iraq and Shiite militias.
Gen. David Petraeus, shown here in Ramadi, Iraq, earlier this month, says the "surge" in U.S. troops in Iraq is proving effective, particularly against Al-Qaida-in-Iraq and Shiite militias. Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Petraeus talks to Michele Norris about the readiness of Iraqi forces.
Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, says the "surge" in U.S. troops has achieved success, particularly against Al-Qaida-in-Iraq insurgents in Anbar province west of Baghdad. Petraeus says the military's most difficult challenge is dealing with sectarian conflicts in the neighborhoods of Baghdad.
After he addressed dozens of lawmakers invited to a closed-door, video-conference at the Pentagon Thursday morning, Petraeus spoke with Michele Norris.
What did you tell the members of Congress?
Essentially that the surge of forces has now turned into a surge of offensive operations, and it began about a month ago, and that that has achieved tactical momentum, success in a number of areas against the Al-Qaida-in-Iraq elements, some success as well against the Iranian-supported Shia extremist militia elements, and a new development in recent months, which is the support of Iraqi people and sheikhs in a number of areas in opposition to al-Qaida, which is something that has helped our effort considerably, especially in Anbar province to the west of Baghdad, which you'll recall was a very, very tough neighborhood for a number of years.
You were talking about success in some areas, but there is a bit of confusion right now about how to measure overall progress in Iraq. [Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, another top U.S. commander in Iraq], at a briefing Thursday said he needs until November to provide what he calls "a good assessment" about how things are going in Iraq, and if it's true that you can't get a good assessment until November, what is it that you're planning to do in September?
What I have said all along is that we would have a reasonable sense by September, basically, of how the new strategy is going. And I think that that will be the case. In fact, he and I sat down earlier this morning and were sort of reviewing how we're doing and so forth, and this is a case of, one month into the surge of offensive operations, feeling that we have a degree of momentum, and trying to determine how to maintain and to build on that momentum, and also how to address some other challenges that we have not yet really come to grips with.
So how should people view that September report? You've downplayed it in the past, but the president and others in Washington are putting quite a bit of stock in this. They're saying, just wait until David Petraeus makes his report before we do anything. It's like the policy clock has stopped running until we actually see that report. Are people incorrect in their thinking that this is some sort of trigger that will determine whether or how the U.S. will be engaged in Iraq in the long term?
I think it's important, and what I have always maintained is that [U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker,] and I will provide as comprehensive and forthright an assessment as we can of the progress that has been achieved to that time, and also identify where there have been shortcomings. And it may be that, at some point along here, I'll have enough of a sense of things to offer some recommendations on the future through my chain of command to President Bush.
On All Things Considered Wednesday, Colin Powell told us in an interview that in his view, by the middle of next year, it will be near impossible to maintain the current troop levels in Iraq because of the strain of multiple deployments, not only in Iraq but also in Afghanistan. Do you agree with his assessment?
I do, actually. I mean, this has always been the case. There has always been a sense that the surge would be something that — it would be more than just temporary, if you will. It would be a sustained increase in forces but that obviously at some point, the surge has to end. And it may be that over time we'll do some redefinition of our missions as well. By the way, Gen. Odierno and I put out to the soldiers and sailors, airmen and Marines here that we see no extension beyond 15 months for any of the forces on the ground. We're keenly aware of the strain that has been placed on the services, and it is one of many operational considerations that will eventually guide recommendations that I make through the chain of command to the president.
A simple question that many in America are now wrestling with: Who is the enemy and what is the U.S. fighting for?
The enemy is extremism, we think, and it is extremism that comes in various forms. Al-Qaida-in-Iraq is a very significant target to us. We see it as the most important near-term threat, because it is the source of the most horrific casualty-producing attacks in Iraq, the attacks that are intended to reignite the horrific sectarian violence that ripped the fabric of society in Baghdad and Iraq in late 2006 through 2007 and still is at play, certainly. There are also, certainly, Sunni extremists beyond al-Qaida, and then there are certainly Shia extremist elements — the most worrisome [being] those associated with Iranian-sponsored groups that sprung from the Sadr militia movement.
When you survey Iraq with your commanders, what is the specific problem or the place that you see that most troubles you and that, in your view, most threatens ultimate success in Iraq?
I think it is probably neighborhoods in Baghdad — actually, neighborhoods through which the sectarian fault lines run. And there are not just big fault lines; there are micro fault lines, and our commanders have really learned an extraordinary amount about this. And they're trying, in a sense, first to sit on these fault lines, literally, with their forces and Iraqi forces, and then to try to stabilize them and then to try to revive them because wherever these fault lines are, there is enormous fear, and markets have shut, banks have closed, basic services are not provided, the streets aren't clean and so forth, and so those are the most challenging of areas.
We've tried to reduce the sectarian violence and have achieved some success in that.
And can you sustain that over the long term?
You put your finger on the biggest issue, and it's the word sustainable, and in fact, it's something that we talk about with the commanders fairly frequently. In fact, we had a police summit [Wednesday] where the various police commanders and coalition commanders who are in Baghdad briefed the [Iraqi] minister of interior and myself on the way ahead for the police, because you have to have local men helping to maintain local security, and in a number of neighborhoods in Baghdad, that is not the case — the ones about which we are most concerned and where, in fact, the focus of our combat and our stability operations is found.
It seems like a day doesn't go by where we don't hear President Bush say, "Just wait until Gen. David Petraeus makes his report." There's so much pressure building to this status report that you're going to deliver in the fall. You are known as a man who has steely resolve, but I'm just wondering, what kind of pressure do you feel right now?
I feel another rock put in my rucksack every time I hear that. Well, obviously, I mean, this is the toughest thing that any of us have ever been involved in, and it's both an enormous privilege to soldier again with our great young men and women over here and to lead them, but needless to say, there's a pretty huge sense of responsibility that goes along with that. Having said that, I mean, you just put the rucksack on and move out and try to do the best you can.
This transcript contains minor edits for clarity.