Petraeus Faces 'Complex' Demands in Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, has been on the job for two months. He says he still hopes to help establish a unified Iraq, but acknowledges the situation is as "complex" there as any he's seen.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

When the U.S. commander in Iraq came to Washington last week, recalled an earlier visit to the nation's capital. It was 2002 and a sniper was at large.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, Multinational Iraq Force): We were out running one of the mornings when he popped off a couple rounds up in North D.C., and I mean, that thing had Washington tied in knots. And you think one guy with one weapon, and you think about sort of what goes on in Baghdad on a given day and yet life goes on.

INSKEEP: General David Petraeus' job is to deal with many gunmen, and car bombers, and militias, and political deadlock among Iraqi leaders. While in Washington on Friday, he sat down to talk about the job that he started early this year. Petraeus is the latest commander in Iraq and may be the last given time to make a difference.

When you wake up in the morning in Baghdad, what's the first thing you want to know?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, actually the first thing I want to know is how did we do last night…

INSKEEP: There may have been a night raid on some location.

Gen. PETRAEUS: …and - not may have been. There are always between six and 12 or so actual special operations not to be confused with the numerous other operations that will be ongoing. But these are very targeted precision operations that in some cases require prime ministerial approval. So these are big deals.

INSKEEP: There must be nights when you feel it was a successful night and nights where everybody got away from you or you're not even sure what you got.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Sure, I mean, there are some nights where it was all staged and there's bad weather. Again, there are a number of successful operations. So that's probably the first thing that you really focus on. There's actually a battle rhythm to our day where you start out by getting right on the secured internet, and then I get an intelligence book and we work our way through that.

INSKEEP: Well, now as you look around, as you gather information, do you believe that that way to war is being fought now, that your following the advice of the counterinsurgency manual that you supervised the production of before you came to Iraq.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, we're certainly trying to do that, yeah. I would point out the counterinsurgency in Iraq is a mix of many different types of operations. It's actually counterterrorism when it comes to al-Qaida and some of the other extremists. By that I mean, precise operations, intelligence-driven but you do certainly classical counterinsurgency when it comes to dealing with perhaps the Sunni rejectionists as you call them or the Saddamists. There's also almost counter gang operations, countering criminals who are taking advantage of the absence of the rule of law.

INSKEEP: When you look at that manual, it gives a rule of thumb for the number of troops you need, as you know well. It says, roughly for every thousand people on the population, you'd need 20 soldiers.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Yeah.

INSKEEP: You do the math and that for Iraq it would say you need half a million troops, which you don't have.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, you don't, yeah, you don't need to do that everywhere in Iraq, by any stretch of the imagination. I mean for starters, you don't need virtually any coalition in the Iraqi Kurdish regions and you need…

INSKEEP: Well, let's just do the numbers for Baghdad, five million people…

Gen. PETRAEUS: Baghdad, it would be somewhere around…

INSKEEP: …you need 100 thousand, do you have 100 thousand?

Gen. PETRAEUS: What we have with coalition and Iraqi forces just those alone is about 80,000. And you then, actually have to factor in some other interesting contributors, and of all things, private contractors are among those. Let me give you an example. The embassy is secured by private contractors. The airport secured is by - so you carry these across. There are tens of thousands security contractors just in Baghdad alone, performing missions that would otherwise have to be performed by Iraqi or coalition forces.

INSKEEP: Granting that point, you mentioned that Iraqi forces are part of your calculation of the troop available to you.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Sure.

INSKEEP: Do you really have that many who are showing up and who you can rely on?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Yes, there are certainly units that were hijacked by sectarian interests during the sectarian violence of 2006. Some subset of the units are works in progress and that work is ongoing and it is something that we're watching very, very closely.

INSKEEP: Let me ask more about that sectarian violence. You said in your public remarks in recent days in Washington, there can be no sustainable outcome if militia death squads are allowed to lie low during the surge, only to resurface later. Isn't that exactly what is happening?

Gen. PETRAEUS: No, it's not at all. And in fact, there are hundreds of members of different death squads who are now in detention and we have continued to go after them as have Iraqi security forces with the support of the government.

INSKEEP: But haven't sectarian militias generally decided to back off for this moment and it's clear that they…

Gen. PETRAEUS: You have to distinguish between run of the mill, if you will, sort of the guys on the street and the death squads. No matter how you slice and dice the numbers that are out there, whether you include, clearly sectarian car bombs and IED - improvised explosive devices - no matter what it is, it has come down by about two-thirds since December last year.

INSKEEP: Really? Because it's been said that sectarian executions have gone down, but if car bombs are stronger even going up, aren't most of those sectarian killings - Sunnis killing Shias apparently?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Not really. Interestingly, they're not. The biggest bombing in recent weeks, which was in a car park near a market in East Baghdad, was in a relatively mixed neighborhood.

INSKEEP: Granting the progress that you're reporting on death squads specifically, are there militias, for example those loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr, which have taken a lower profile since you started the surge and are still there?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Yes. Yeah. A lot of these, you know - how do you count a militia? I mean, the guy work in - no kidding, we walk through a market with one of the Iraqi generals. And he said, by the way, you know, a lot of these guys are all, you know, they'd be in Jaysh al-Mahdi if they weren't out here selling - it was one of these massive markets where you can buy anything - tens of thousands of Iraqis.

So what you have to do, of course, is you have to get the angry young men off the streets by giving them alternatives to having to hang out on the street corner with an AK-47.

INSKEEP: When you look at the nature of the war, targeted operations to get specific targets, at the same time insurgents constantly changing their tactics, do you spend more time reacting to them or forcing them to react to you?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I think it's a mix. We should not by any means underestimate al-Qaida, whose leaders we have repeatedly picked up - and we got another one last night. Literally. I checked my secure Internet this morning…

INSKEEP: What can you tell me about that?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Nothing. Again, but high enough that they get - there are different categories. There's touchdown or a jackpot, as they label this thing.

used on the charts that you've got?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, these are - these are charts that, again - you'll find…

INSKEEP: What's the scale? I'm just curious.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I'm not going to go into…

INSKEEP: Is there a first down or a base hit?

Gen. PETRAEUS: You know, you have acronyms. You have…

INSKEEP: Sure.

Gen. PETRAEUS: You have shorthand and those are among the shorthand terms that are used in that particular world.

INSKEEP: When I think about the way that military officers are trained, the approach always, if someone asks you to do something, is to get up and do it. If it came to that, would you be prepared to tell the president, can't do this, can't be done?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Sure. I've said that repeatedly. And I actually don't think it's, you know, that we're always can-do. In fact, I think what military commanders are required to tell people what it will take to do something, alert them to the risks that are out there, and I think that dialogue is very, very important. I think it's literally important that a commander have dialogue with his boss about the mission.

INSKEEP: You talk with the president directly much?

Gen. PETRAEUS: I do, a minimum of once a week. And the same with the secretary of defense, same with Admiral Fallon, my immediate boss, and the chairman of the joint chiefs, to make sure that, again, we all sort of see the world the same way, we see the challenges, the complexities. This is by far the most complex environment that I've ever seen.

INSKEEP: About four years ago now you told the journalist Rick Atkinson, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, as you were working there and fighting there, you said to him, tell me how this ends. That's how he quoted you. Can you tell me how this ends?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I'll tell you how I hope it ends. And I mean that's what we're obviously soldiering our hearts out to do, and that is to help Iraq become what its constitution enshrines, and that is one Iraq with a government that's representative of and responsive to its people, that can secure itself and that is certainly not a haven to terrorists, ideally an ally in the global war on terror.

INSKEEP: Is that still a realistic hope?

Gen. PETRAEUS: It's a challenging hope, but it is one that, again, we are doing everything we can to provide the Iraqis an opportunity to attain.

INSKEEP: General Petraeus, thanks very much.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Great to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: General David Petraeus is commander of U.S. forces in Iraq. He spoke at the Pentagon on Friday.

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