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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Iraq's battle against militia groups this week may help to answer a critical question. The question is whether Iraq's central government is taking charge or whether it doesn't really have the power to do that. In a moment we'll ask what this week's battles mean for American troop levels. The president's top military advisor spoke to NPR.

We begin with a retired officer who still advises his former colleagues and who is just back from a visit to Iraq, General Jack Keane. He was in the country as Iraq's military prepared for an attack on militias in the southern city of Basra, and having seen the news of this week, General Keane, were you impressed with Iraq's preparations?

General JACK KEANE (U.S. Army, Retired): Well, first of all, I was impressed with the fact that they want to do something about the sanctuary that's developed in Basra. And what we have there is criminality and thuggery and different political factions using their power and influence at the expense of the people, and it's a deteriorating security situation.

So he deserves credit for that. How well planned, prepared, and coordinated this operation is, particularly with the U.S. capability to get some much-needed assistance in terms of intelligence, unmanned aerial vehicles, attack helicopters, I'm not sure.

INSKEEP: Are you saying the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had the right idea to try to grab control of this very important southern city, but he may not have coordinated it very well with the American assets that could have been available to him?

Gen. KEANE: That's my judgment, and how well he's prepared - how well his military commanders have prepared their own forces in terms of the size of those forces and the techniques that they're gonna use inside the city, I'm not convinced all of that has been put together as well as it should be.

The - he's got the right idea. The execution, I think, may be - may be a little wanting as a result of that. Now, they can still get this right as time evolves. You know, war is a trial and error and they're in a lead here and we're in support and I'm certain they're getting some advice from us.

INSKEEP: This is what American troops found out in Baghdad, of course. You can use a lot of force and it can be counter-productive or self-destructive unless you do it in just the right way in an urban environment.

Gen. KEANE: Yeah, you've got to use the proper techniques in terms of how to do this. It's - we certainly have learned that ourselves. And actually, what works best is when U.S. forces and Iraqi forces are working side by side together, that kind of partnership, it has certainly produced the rather traumatic results in Baghdad, al-Anbar province, and Diyala, and now it's what we're using to defeat the al-Qaida finally up in Mosul as, you know, we're attacking against their last ditch effort.

INSKEEP: Okay. So are American troops needed then in Basra?

Gen. KEANE: Well, I think eventually we may find ourselves in that situation. I think in the near term, you know, the Iraqis wanted to do this by themselves and I can understand our commanders certainly letting them go ahead and give it a try, but I suspect that at a minimum we'll probably have to provide some rather significant enablers to assist them and we may find ourselves over time also providing some ground forces, so that - we would do that reluctantly because of the efforts that we have up north to finish the al-Qaida once and for all.

INSKEEP: Would that also suggest that Iraq's government is not as ready as maybe they would hope to be to act on their own?

Gen. KEANE: Well, I think we're really talking about, you know, how ready is the military to act on its own here. And you know, pockets of the Iraqi military are certainly available to act on its own, but comprehensively the entire military, though it's made significant progress, and I'm encouraged by how much progress they've made, that they're not ready to take on the security and stability situation in Iraq by themselves.

INSKEEP: When we see the news today, General Keane, that Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has had to move back a deadline, he gave a deadline of Saturday for militias to disarm or else, effectively, and now he's said, well, okay, April 8th, next month, please disarm and I'll pay you. Does that suggest that he's getting in a little more trouble here?

Gen. KEANE: Well, I think Maliki's pretty impulsive at times and I think that's what happened here. He jumped into the situation. What is he doing down in Basra himself as a prime minister of an entire nation?

INSKEEP: Oh, trying to direct the battle?

Gen. KEANE: Unduly influencing commanders on the ground, and that doesn't make any sense. So he's a very impulsive person. I think that's what's happened here, and I think he's way out in front of what the military realities on the ground are. Look, there's eight to 10,000 militia running around with guns and - not just rifles, but they have recoilless rifles, crew-served weapons, rockets and mortars, and this would take weeks to go in and conduct a comprehensive campaign to bring that militia down to a situation where it's very stable for the people.

INSKEEP: General Keane, thanks very much. Retired U.S. Army General Jack Keane.

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