By Cameron W. Barr
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 14, 2008
BAGHDAD, March 13 -- Iraqi leaders have failed to take advantage of a reduction in violence to make adequate progress toward resolving their political differences, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Thursday.
Petraeus, who is preparing to testify to Congress next month on the Iraq war, said in an interview that "no one" in the U.S. and Iraqi governments "feels that there has been sufficient progress by any means in the area of national reconciliation," or in the provision of basic public services.
The general's comments appeared to be his sternest to date on Iraqis' failure to achieve political reconciliation. In February, following the passage of laws on the budget, provincial elections and an amnesty for certain detainees, Petraeus was more encouraging. "The passage of the three laws today showed that the Iraqi leaders are now taking advantage of the opportunity that coalition and Iraqi troopers fought so hard to provide," he said at the time.
Petraeus came back to Iraq a year ago to implement a counterinsurgency strategy, backed up by a temporary increase of about 30,000 U.S. troops, intended to reduce violence so Iraqi leaders could pass laws and take other measures to ease the sectarian and political differences that threaten to break the country apart.
The Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has won passage of some legislation that aids the cause of reconciliation, drawing praise from President Bush and his supporters. But the Iraqi government also has deferred action on some of its most important legislative goals, including laws governing the exploitation of Iraq's oil resources, that the Bush administration had identified as necessary benchmarks of progress toward reconciliation.
Many Iraqi parliament members and other officials acknowledge that the country's political system is often paralyzed by sectarian divisions, but they also say that American expectations are driven by considerations in Washington and do not reflect the complexity of Iraq's problems.
In what appeared to be a foreshadowing of his congressional testimony, which his aides said he would not discuss explicitly, Petraeus insisted that Iraqi leaders still have an opportunity to act. "We're going to fight like the dickens" to maintain the gains in security and "where we can to try and build on it," he said.
While violence has declined dramatically since late 2006, when thousands of Iraqis were being killed each month, U.S. military data show that attacks on U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians have leveled off or risen slightly in the early part of 2008. "I don't see an enormous uptick projected right now," Petraeus said, speaking in his windowless office in the U.S. Embassy, which is housed in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace. "What you have seen is some sensational attacks, there's no question about that."
Petraeus said several factors may account for the recent violence, including increased U.S. and Iraqi operations against insurgents in the northern city of Mosul -- which has lately become one of Iraq's most dangerous -- and insurgent efforts to reestablish some of their havens in Baghdad. And Petraeus said U.S. commanders could not discount the possibility that insurgents "know the April testimony is coming up."
The additional forces sent to Iraq last year have begun to depart and will be gone by midsummer, leaving in place a baseline U.S. presence of about 130,000 troops. Petraeus said it would increasingly fall to Iraqi security forces and neighborhood patrols funded by the United States to help keep violence down.
Petraeus also said the United States would temporarily freeze further reductions in its troop presence to allow for a "period of consolidation and evaluation after reducing our ground combat forces by over a quarter." He said he would discuss the length and timing of what the military terms an "operational pause" during his testimony.
Petraeus credited both the mainly Sunni neighborhood patrols known as the Awakening and a cease-fire called by Shiite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr with helping to bring down violence. The Awakening fighters include former insurgents who say they have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq, a largely homegrown Sunni group that Petraeus said is in communication with al-Qaeda leaders abroad. The United States is now paying 88,000 members of the Awakening $300 a month to take part in the neighborhood patrols.
Sadr issued his cease-fire in August 2007 and renewed it last month in an attempt to increase his control over his Mahdi Army militia and expel renegade fighters. U.S. military commanders who once saw Sadr and his forces as enemies now speak deferentially of the cleric, who has maintained his insistence that the U.S. occupation must end.
In the interview, Petraeus conceded that some elements of both the Awakening movement and the Mahdi Army may be standing down in order to prepare for the day when the U.S. presence is diminished. "Some of them may be keeping their powder dry," Petraeus said of Mahdi Army members. "Obviously you would expect some of that to happen.
"The issue is, again," he continued, "how to sort of prolong what has been achieved, in just a host of different neighborhoods, villages, towns and cities, so that the Iraqi structures can continue to gather strength."
Sunni fighters in the western province of Anbar who have joined the Awakening "are waiting for the next opportunity," not the next war, Petraeus asserted. "What they want to do is get more closely linked with Baghdad so they can continue to benefit from the enormous oil revenue wealth which is pouring into this country."
Petraeus said he and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker had "repeatedly noted that it's crucial that the Iraqis exploit the opportunities that we and our Iraqi counterparts have fought so hard to provide them."
Correspondents Sudarsan Raghavan and Joshua Partlow in Baghdad and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.