By Ernesto Londoño and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 9, 2007
BAGHDAD, March 8 -- Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday that he would examine "some months" from now whether to seek an extension of the administration's troop increase and that he had no plans "right now" to request additional forces.
"If you're going to achieve the kinds of effects that we probably need," Petraeus said during his first news conference since taking command a month ago, the increased troop level "would need to be sustained certainly for some time well beyond the summer."
That comment represented a shift from his predecessor's assessment of when results would be visible. Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said in January that "it's probably going to be the summer, late summer, before we get to the point where the people in Baghdad feel safe in their neighborhoods."
Petraeus requested the additional troops to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that calls for deploying forces in small bases and outposts among civilians in order to protect them from militants.
By raising the possibility of extending the increase, Petraeus is addressing a key concern of U.S. military officials: that Iraqi insurgents and militias will simply wait out the Baghdad security plan being implemented by U.S. and Iraqi forces.
In recent weeks, there have been indications that militias, especially anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, are lying low while the U.S. military boosts its troop levels in Baghdad. One perceived advantage that militias and insurgents have over the U.S. military is that they are operating on a longer time span, and have more patience, than the Americans.
Yet if Petraeus does recommend later this year keeping troop numbers at a higher level into the winter and perhaps beyond, and the Bush administration accepts that proposal, providing the extra forces would place new strains on the Army and Marine Corps. Troops would have to be sent back to Iraq sooner than planned, perhaps with their training curtailed.
Petraeus also said 2,200 new military police will be arriving in Baghdad in a few months to support the 21,500 additional troops being deployed to secure Baghdad and other volatile areas of Iraq.
Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told U.S. lawmakers this week that as many as 7,000 additional support troops would be sent to Iraq to back up the extra combat personnel being deployed.
Petraeus said two of the five U.S. Army combat brigades being deployed to Baghdad had entered the capital, along with increased numbers of Iraqi troops. He said all the new U.S. troops, including about 4,000 Marines, would be in place in June.
He did not confirm a report in Thursday's New York Times saying that his second in command, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, has recommended that the additional U.S. troops stay in Iraq through February 2008.
"I have certainly not reached a conclusion yet about that," Petraeus said.
He said he and Odierno had discussed troop levels Thursday morning, "and right now we do not see other requests looming out there." Petraeus added: "We're some months from starting -- from saying, 'Okay, let's continue at this level or determine what else we might do.' "
U.S. and Iraqi officials say they believe militia and insurgent leaders have left Baghdad to avoid the temporary troop increase. Petraeus said commanders are watching areas outside the capital where many insurgents are believed to have traveled.
"The belt areas obviously have to get attention, and that includes portions of Diyala province," he said. "Those areas over which we have concerns will see additional forces flowing into them."
Petraeus also said Thursday that military efforts need to be coupled with political reforms, including the absorption of what he termed "reconcilable" outlaw groups into society.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are "trying to determine over time who are the irreconcilables and who are the reconcilables," Petraeus said. "What the government is trying to do, what those supporting the government are trying to do, are to split the irreconcilables from the reconcilables and to make the reconcilables part of the solution rather than a continuing part of a problem, and then dealing with the irreconcilables differently."
Petraeus, who left Iraq nearly a year and a half ago at the close of a previous tour, said he was struck by the bad shape of some neighborhoods in the capital.
"I must tell you that I was taken aback by what I saw in driving around," he said, listing several sectors of the city that were once heavily populated by Sunnis or that were home to people of both sects. "When I left 17 months ago now, there certainly was not the kind of emptiness in some of the neighborhoods of Baghdad."
The general also said he spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki about an attack on a prison Tuesday night in Mosul during which 140 inmates fled, among them many suspected Sunni insurgents.
"He is very concerned about it," Petraeus said. "He has directed an investigation into it."
The Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group, asserted responsibility for the attack.
Petraeus also highlighted the need to expand Iraq's correctional system, which is already crowded, in light of an expected increase in detentions as the security plan gets further underway.
"Iraq has a very, very small capacity in that regard," Petraeus said, adding that short-term and long-term detention facilities are being prepared to take in more inmates. Tens of thousands of people have been detained in recent years by U.S. and Iraqi officials. Few cases go before a judge.
Ricks reported from Washington.