SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
The targeted killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani has sent shock waves through the Middle East, as well as the military and foreign policy establishment here in the U.S. In Iraq today, the parliament has voted for the expulsion of U.S. troops.
Retired General David Petraeus was commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and led the troop surge in Iraq in 2007. We spoke with him prior to today's expulsion vote when he told us he had an adversarial relationship with Soleimani.
DAVID PETRAEUS: He sent me a message via the president of Iraq during the surge in Iraq at a time - about a year into it, March, late March of 2008 - when we were supporting the Iraqi forces that were attacking the Shia militia - the militia, in large part, that he supported - in the second-largest city in Iraq, Basra. The message he sent indicated that he controlled the policy for Iran and that we should deal with him. It said, General Petraeus, you should know that I, Qassem Soleimani, control the policy for Iran when it comes to Iraq and also Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan. In other words, you should deal with me if you want to try to reach some kind of resolution of this issue, short of having to continue the battle in Basra, which was quite tenuous at that time. We did not deal with him. I essentially told him to pound sand.
MCAMMON: You mentioned the Shia militia's general. But there are those who see your role as instrumental in the influence of the Shia militias inside Iraq's U.S.-backed security forces because they were absorbed into the police. How do you respond to that?
PETRAEUS: Well, there's no question that, again, there was a presence of these different militias that was emerging during my time as a three-star. There is also no question that I insisted on the removal of key leaders - all of the brigadier generals and above in the police forces, for example. There was - these were actually paramilitary police forces, not just cops on the beat - two full divisions of them.
We would refuse to reconstitute these forces, to retrain them, to fill them back up with people, equipment and weapons and so forth until the toxic leaders were removed. Sadly, those leaders were returned to their positions several years later. And unfortunately, these toxic leaders were a large part of the undoing of Iraq that allowed the Islamic State to get back up on its feet and ultimately to come back into Iraq and to defeat the Iraqi security forces in the north and the west.
MCAMMON: Well, as you're no doubt aware, there is video of Iraqi security forces letting militia members into the Green Zone to attack the U.S. Embassy last week. So clearly, they continue to have influence with the security forces. What does Soleimani's death actually change in terms of the situation on the ground?
PETRAEUS: Well, I think it's impossible to overstate the significance of this action, really. And it was hugely disappointing to see a brigade of Iraqi forces essentially surrender their mission of defending the Green Zone as this huge number of militia swarmed into it and then surrounded our embassy and got inside part of it, doing a lot of damage. The real question here is, of course, how do Iranian forces directly and their proxies indirectly - throughout the region and beyond, including in cyberspace - respond to this attack? How does...
MCAMMON: And what's your prediction?
PETRAEUS: ...Iran now respond? Well, I think Iran is not in the strongest of positions, given the sanctions, a dismal economy and widespread Iranian popular unrest. So I tend to think it is more likely that we will see a variety of proxy attacks. And again, Iran has a lot of proxies throughout the region, thanks to the efforts of Qassem Soleimani. But really, this comes down to whether or not this has restored some degree of deterrence, which clearly was lacking, given what Iran and their proxies were doing throughout the region, and steadily ratcheting the efforts upward.
MCAMMON: That's your hope that this reestablishes deterrence. But Iran is talking about targeting American personnel everywhere and anywhere. What are the chances this backfires?
PETRAEUS: There are chances of that, without question. I mean, look. There's no question that the tensions have been dramatically increased as a result of this action. Perhaps the overlooked question is what kind of diplomatic initiative the U.S. puts forward now. This would very well, I think, be the time to - through intermediaries first and then directly with Iran - to sit down and say, OK, let's stop. Let's come to some agreement because this is clearly headed in a very bad direction. Make no mistake about it. There will be losses on all sides if this escalates further.
MCAMMON: That's retired General David Petraeus. Thanks so much for talking with us.
PETRAEUS: My pleasure, Sarah. Thank you.
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