By Ernesto Londoño and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 10, 2008; A11
BAGHDAD, Sept. 9 -- Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the departing commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said that the country remains "the central front" for al-Qaeda and other extremist groups but acknowledged that violence is rising in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- battlegrounds he will soon oversee as the next head of the U.S. military's Central Command.
In an interview Tuesday, hours before President Bush spoke about the need to send more troops to Afghanistan, Petraeus said, "Iraq is still viewed as the central front, if you will, for al-Qaeda and extremism of that flavor."
Petraeus oversaw the dramatic drop in violence in Iraq that began last summer as the Bush administration deployed 30,000 additional troops here. "We have gone from being on the brink to being on the mend," he said at his office in Baghdad's Green Zone.
Petraeus said the threats that al-Qaeda and the Taliban "pose to Pakistan and Afghanistan are obviously very serious, and needless to say that the rise in the level of violence in Afghanistan is cause for significant concern."
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was not a haven for al-Qaeda, which found a footing in the country in the near-anarchy that followed the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is an organization of mostly Iraqi foot soldiers that U.S. officials believe is led by Arabs from other countries.
Once considered the greatest threat to Iraq's stability, the organization has been severely weakened, in large part because it lost the support of Sunnis in western Anbar province and other parts of the country. Al-Qaeda in Iraq members told The Washington Post this summer that senior leaders had left for Afghanistan.
"Clearly al-Qaeda in Iraq has suffered substantial reverses and there have to be questions about how viable it is, given that it has been largely rejected by the people whose support is so critical," Petraeus said. "It could be that the assessment by al-Qaeda of where its central front is could change based on the damage they have sustained here."
Petraeus moves into his new job as the United States begins reducing troop levels in Iraq.
About 4,200 troops are scheduled to leave by the end of December, with the rest, including a 3,400-person Army brigade, by the end of January, for a total drawdown of about 8,000 troops, military officials said.
Petraeus's aides were on the phone in the hours before Bush spoke, asking that the text of his speech be altered to say the brigade would leave in January instead of February. Bush said February.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, later said Bush's remarks were meant to incorporate a small number of troops that may remain until early February.
In the interview, Petraeus acknowledged that he had originally asked for no combat troops to be withdrawn. But he called that recommendation a "very early analysis" that he was given only three days to prepare in August.
After several weeks, Petraeus said, he and his replacement, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, agreed that a combat brigade could be withdrawn. "What is approved today is in fact that final set of recommendations," Petraeus said.
The net effect will be a reduction in the overall U.S. troop presence to about 138,000, which is still slightly higher than the number of troops in Iraq in January 2007, when Bush announced he would temporarily increase troop levels. Bush said Tuesday that additional withdrawals might be possible during the first half of next year "if the progress in Iraq continues to hold."
But Petraeus said the gains in Iraq are not irreversible. "There are a number of what we call storm clouds in the horizon," he said.
Petraeus said recent intelligence reports suggest that Iranian-backed Shiite fighters who left the country in recent months to avoid a military confrontation with U.S. and Iraqi forces are considering returning to Iraq.
Political tension, particularly over disputed internal boundaries in northern Iraq, had the potential of "erupting into something more significant," the general said.
The Iraqi parliament, which reconvened Tuesday after its summer break, failed to pass a law this year to provide a framework for provincial elections that were scheduled to take place next month. The most explosive issue is a dispute between Arabs and Kurds over control of Kirkuk, an oil-rich northern city.
U.S. officials are also keeping a close eye on the handover of control of the so-called Sons of Iraq, paramilitary groups that have been on the U.S. payroll, to the Iraqi government. The process is expected to start this fall. The Shiite-led government has expressed misgivings about absorbing members of the Sons of Iraq -- many are former Sunni insurgents -- into its security forces.
Staff writer Dan Eggen in Washington contributed to this report.