U.S. Official: Iraqi Forces Move Toward Taking Military Lead

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military official who until recently directed the training of Iraq's police and army, says that an increasing number of Iraqi batallions are taking a lead military role, though many still require assistance from coalition forces.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

Negotiators in Iraq are reporting a breakthrough in talks on the country's disputed constitution. With just three days until a national referendum on the charter, Iraqi leaders have called a special parliamentary session today and at least one Sunni party now says it will support the constitution. As negotiations intensified, insurgents continued their deadly campaign. Thirty Iraqis were killed today by a suicide bomber at an army recruiting center in northwestern Iraq. Iraq's political success depends in part on its security situation. Lieutenant General David Petraeus was for 15 months the man in charge of training Iraqi forces. He's just handed over the multinational security transition command in Iraq.

General Petraeus, welcome.

Lieutenant General DAVID PETRAEUS (In Charge of Training Iraqi Forces): It's good to be with you.

MONTAGNE: Much has been made of comments made by the top general in Iraq, George Casey, who went before the Senate Armed Services Committee very recently, and he said that only one of 115 Iraqi police and army battalions is now fully independent. That's down from three who were designated as independent just last June. What's happening here? Why has the number gone down?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, Renee, first of all, I think it's very important to focus on what he also said, and that was that there has been an increase. Now it's nearly 40 army and police combat battalions that are in the lead or better. That's actually the level just below that fully independent level. And that is critically important, because that's where they no longer need coalition forces in that area. They may need coalition assistance, which is why they are, of course, still in the lead rather than fully independent.

MONTAGNE: How many Iraqi troops would have to be assessed at the top levels of independence and readiness for US troops to start withdrawing? And is the strategy to pull out region by region?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, the key is getting to that `in the lead.' It is not necessary to be fully independent for Iraqi forces to replace US forces or to allow them to deploy elsewhere. Interestingly, one of the places where they've replaced US forces is on Haifa Street in Baghdad, which used to be known as Purple Heart Boulevard, a very, very tough area up and down which our forces fought last summer and into the fall. Iraqis took it over over the course of the winter and into the spring. I walked down that street with an Iraqi battalion and they own Haifa Street in a way that even coalition forces never could. That's the type of transition that will take place over time.

MONTAGNE: We didn't get a number from you, if you have such a number. How many troops will have to be ready for US troops to start withdrawing? Is it a one-on-one ratio? Is there a time frame for this?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, again, it depends very much on the local situation in each case. In that respect, of course, it depends most importantly on the level of the insurgent activity in the area and the level of support from the local citizens. There's no arithmetic formula--I wish there were, but it does not exist--that says that when you hit this number in this location, that you automatically can transition.

MONTAGNE: Now of the 200,000 troops and police that we've been talking about, how many have been drawn from ethnic militias around the country, militias where their loyalties were to ethnic groups?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: There was an explicit policy adopted by the Iraqis late last summer that, in fact, sought to recruit individual members of militias, not bringing them in as units, as part of a reintegration process into Iraqi society. We have seen in recent weeks, in Basra in particular, that there are some cases where there clearly are conflicted loyalties, but it is going to be a lingering problem for Iraq. And increasingly, it is Iraqi leaders who will hold the key to success as we move forward.

MONTAGNE: Well, the situation in Basra is a very problematic one. Some of the reporting out of Basra makes it sound quite scary, people tied to Shiite militias. They've infiltrated the police. There are reports that they've taken over the very bureau that's going after insurgents and reports that the police chief himself says he doesn't trust most of his own police force. How can that be stopped from happening elsewhere in the country?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, it can be stopped by very, very good vetting, and that was, in fact, put in place about six to eight months ago in the Ministry of Interior. It's been in place in the Ministry of Defense for a bit longer. But Iraq does, in fact, have a situation where members of former militia were brought in, in some cases, all the way back in the fall of 2003, and they've still got to deal with this in some of their ministry forces, and Basra is clearly a case of that.

MONTAGNE: How do you foster national loyalty...

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Well...

MONTAGNE: ...in a situation where some of those who are being brought into the military are--their original loyalty was either regional or ethnic?

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: It is a challenge, but it is one, again, that the Iraqis have recognized and one on which they've been working. It's a process, really, of trying to foster loyalty to one's--the man on your left or right, if you will, in among their soldiers.

MONTAGNE: Lieutenant General David Petraeus oversaw the training of Iraqi security forces. He begins his new assignment as commanding general of the US Army Combined Arms Center in Ft. Leavenworth this fall.

Thanks very much for joining us.

Lt. Gen. PETRAEUS: Pleasure to be with you, Renee.

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