Gen. Petraeus Sees 'Vastly More Work' to Do in Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, tells reporters at the Pentagon that the United States commitment to Iraq is "an endeavor that clearly is going to require an enormous commitment over time."

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, Multinational Force Iraq): The operational environment in Iraq is the most complex and challenging I have ever seen.

INSKEEP: Which is the view of the U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus. He's been telling reporters his views at the Pentagon, and you get a sense of the complexity of the situation when you hear how Petraeus starts with the problem, offers some optimism, but then qualifies it all with what's still going wrong.

Gen. PETRAEUS: The situation is, in short, exceedingly challenging. Though as I will briefly explain, there has been progress in several areas in recent months, despite the sensational attacks by al-Qaida which have, of course, been significant blows to our effort.

INSKEEP: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Guy Raz has been listening to General Petraeus and joins us now. And Guy, he said there's progress in several areas. What areas?

GUY RAZ: Well, he spoke specifically about the fact that sectarian violence seems to be down. Later in the briefing, Steve, I should mention that General Petraeus was asked about this issue of progress, and he was asked to qualify it, and he said that across the board there is no indication that violence is down in Iraq. One bright spot - if you can characterize it that way - is Anbar province, of course the western province of Iraq, which for such a long time was one of the deadliest areas in Iraq, has seen some improvements, particularly in the city of Ramadi.

And now it appears as if most of the deadliest attacks are happening in the province north of Baghdad, Diyala province.

INSKEEP: Just so I understand what you're saying, he's telling you that certain kinds of violence are down, violence is down in certain areas, but overall, the same number of people are getting killed day by day in Iraq, roughly.

RAZ: Right, which seems like a completely mixed message, which is essentially what it was. I mean, General Petraeus has been exceedingly careful in the way he has characterized the progress, or lack thereof, in Iraq. He prides himself on being forthcoming and candid. He has a good relationship with the media. He has a good relationship with Congress. He doesn't want to be identified with any political agendas. So in a sense he's really sitting on the fence about what's happening in Iraq.

INSKEEP: Now, all the military effort in Iraq is described as an effort to buy time for a political solution. Does the general claim that they are any closer to a political solution to the problems in Iraq?

RAZ: The short answer is no. And it seems somewhat awkward, considering he essentially came to Washington to ask Congress for more time for his plan. And he repeatedly stressed this point, that in order for the U.S. plan to succeed, the Iraqis essentially have to come to some kind of political agreement.

He does now say that around September, early September, he's going to offer the president and Congress what he calls a candid assessment of the way forward - in other words, what to do based on - what to do essentially from that point forward, if in fact the security plan is working, if it's not working and so on. And he offered a few benchmarks; he offered a few benchmarks as to how he will judge that and measure that.

INSKEEP: He's mentioned that September date before. Is he essentially setting a deadline for himself?

RAZ: You know, I don't think he'd want to be boxed into a corner. And as I say, he's exceedingly careful. And I certainly don't think General Petraeus would see it that way, but essentially he is, because Congress is going to hold him to that at this point. They are going to say around September, okay, we've waited and now we are waiting for your candid assessment.

If this plan doesn't appear to be working, I assume that there is going to be an even stronger call for a rapid redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq.

INSKEEP: Although I guess if you say September, you do buy yourself another five or six months if people accept that.

RAZ: That's right. Essentially that is true. The question now, of course, is what will happen on the legislative side of this issue, whether or not Congress will now - presuming that the president vetoes this bill, the House bill - whether or not Congress will essentially pass another bill that will give General Petraeus the money that presumably he'll need to continue this new security plan.

INSKEEP: Guy, good talking with you.

RAZ: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Guy Raz at the Pentagon today.

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