Iraqis Say They Will Meet Constitution Deadline

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The head of Iraq's constitution committee said the group will meet its mid-August deadline, while aiming to resolve fundamental differences over issues including the role of Islam and federalism. Melissa Block talks with Lt. Gen. David Petraeus.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In Baghdad today, the head of the committee drawing up Iraq's new constitution said the group will meet its deadline to have a draft ready by mid-August. The US has pressured the Iraqis to stick to that timetable and to quickly resolve some fundamental differences over issues including the role of Islam and federalism. The constitution will be voted on in a referendum. If it's approved, that would pave the way for the election of a permanent government.

BLOCK: A successful political process could in turn pave the way for some withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. That, of course, also hinges on the ability of Iraqi security forces to defend the country. For the last year, the man in charge of getting the Iraqi forces to that level has been Lieutenant General David Petraeus. I spoke with him last May just before he left for Iraq, and General Petraeus joins us again now by telephone from his headquarters at Phoenix Base in Baghdad's Green Zone.

General Petraeus, welcome back to the program.

Lieutenant General DAVID PETRAEUS (Multinational Security Transition Command): Well, thanks, Melissa. It's good to talk to you again.

BLOCK: When we spoke a year ago, you cautioned that we have to be very careful--these were your words--`not to rush to failure,' not to ask more of the Iraqi forces than they're ready to deliver. I wonder whether critics, though, might say that, in fact, this has become more of a crawl to failure, that Iraqi forces are nowhere near where you might have thought they would have been a year ago.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I think there's been enormous progress, actually, Melissa. There's, for example, over 105 police and army combat battalions that are now in the fight. The bulk of these, to be sure, are fighting alongside our forces, but there's some nearly three dozen of them that are assessed to be in lead. In other words, they are actually out front, with coalition forces providing some assistance.

BLOCK: These numbers of troops trained can be a little confusing. You talked about them being in the fight, and I guess the question is: How substantially are they in the fight? There was an assessment last week from General Peter Pace of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that only a small number of Iraqi security forces are able to take on the insurgents by themselves, and you just talked about some degree of dependence on coalition troops. I mean, it does still seem that there is significant dependence on US and other forces there.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, again, there's a substantial number that are now actually in the lead, and I think it's not surprising at all really that there would still be some need for assistance from the coalition. If you look at how long it takes to build forces in our own system--and we're going through a process within the US Army, for example, of transformation--and you look at how rapidly the Iraqis have stood their forces back up, again, I think that the progress has been very, very substantial.

BLOCK: Last week, General George Casey in Iraq predicted that they would be able to make fairly substantial reductions of US troops by next spring and next summer. Is that realistic? Given what's known about Iraqi troop readiness, do you think that's a realistic timetable?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, it depends on conditions, and I think he was very clear to state that this would be conditions-based. And certainly, the capability of Iraqi and security forces are very important elements as those conditions are assessed. But there are other conditions, as well. You mentioned the constitutional process. Certainly, the overall political environment in the country is very, very important as all this goes forward so that those who may feel that they were disenfranchised or don't feel that they support the new Iraq are brought into the process and, therefore, support their security forces, as well.

BLOCK: You've been describing successes in the training operation, and I want to ask you about some possible pitfalls. I spoke with two reporters from The Washington Post in June who had spent time with both US and Iraqi troops in the north of Iraq, and they described a number of troubling things about Iraqi troop performance. And perhaps the most troubling thing in their story was this, that US troops wouldn't tell Iraqi soldiers what the mission was that they were going out on out of fear that they would, in turn, tell the insurgents. And that seems to be a fundamental problem of infiltration and collaboration.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I don't know where that took place, and I know that I have walked with patrols repeatedly. We tell them where we're going ahead of time; they tell us where they're going. So I think that those are probably isolated cases, but without knowing what units they're talking about and so forth, I think that it's difficult to answer that one.

BLOCK: This was around the area of Beiji, and it was a unit of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: I'm familiar with that story. That was a single Iraqi company, actually, Melissa. There are some good Iraqi units, and there are some Iraqi units that need more work. But again, given the age of many of these units, I think it's not surprising that very, very young units, in some cases, are still trying to find themselves and, of course, gaining experience along the way.

BLOCK: When we spoke last year, you talked about the value that you saw of integrating militias, whether they're Shiite militias or Kurdish militias, into the Central Command. Do you think that's been a success?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: There has been a good bit of progress in that, although there is certainly a lot more than can and probably should be done. Last summer, the Iraqi government approved a policy that was called the Transition and Reintegration of militias program, and for the Iraqi security forces, that included targeted recruiting of individuals from militias for the national forces.

BLOCK: If you have these militias, Shiite militias, say, Kurdish peshmerga, operating in areas of the country that are predominantly Sunni, that would seem to be problematic. I mean, could that be radicalizing the Sunni population to have them in their midst?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, they certainly don't have militias operating in their areas. What they have is national forces that every effort has been made to represent the national population. In fact, we have found, for example, in Anbar province, the experience of Iraqi security forces has been that those that come from that province have had a difficult time when the going gets tough because of the enormous tribal pressures that are on the members of those forces. And so the Iraqi military and the Iraqi police have moved forces in from outside that province, by and large, although they are now also recruiting from within again as the forces regain their strength and their capability and their ability to operate. But it's probably going to take a mix, but it will be a mix that is representative of the population at large, not all from one ethnic group or another.

BLOCK: When you took this command about a year ago, did you imagine--could you have conceived that you would be dealing with a revitalized insurgency one year on?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Yeah, I think so. I think that military leaders have to plan for the toughest of circumstances, and I think that that was certainly one of the options that was out there. The other thing, though, that I would say was that I still sometimes have to really work hard to grasp the magnitude and the scope of what it is that we are doing in trying to help re-establish, in a really quite a short period of time, a country's entire military structure. And again, we actually have to really work hard to just keep all this in our view screen, if you will, because it is a colossal effort.

BLOCK: General Petraeus, thanks very much.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, thank you, Melissa. Good to talk to you again.

BLOCK: Lieutenant General David Petraeus is the commanding general of the Multinational Security Transition Command in Iraq. He's expected to leave Baghdad in September for a new assignment at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

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