Petraeus Tries to Make Headway in Iraq
BAGHDAD--The U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, is under no illusions about the difficulty of his task. He keeps by his desk a cartoon from an Arab newspaper depicting a small soldier named David looking up at a ferocious, looming Goliath named Iraq. When he returned here in February to lead the U.S. war effort, he was shocked at how deeply sectarian violence had torn the country over the past year. He visited Baghdad neighborhoods where hundreds or even thousands of Iraqis had been killed or forced to move. "It's by far and away the most complex and challenging environment I've ever seen," Petraeus told U.S. News during an interview at his office--far worse than he encountered on his first two tours here as well as on earlier assignments in the Balkan, Haitian, and Central American conflicts.
It is no exaggeration to say that the future of U.S. policy in Iraq rests on this man's shoulders. Petraeus, a slim, intense man of 54, was chosen to lead what many view as the Bush administration's last-ditch effort to rescue its troubled war effort. He is overseeing a temporary buildup to 170,000 troops under a new plan that aims to dampen violence in Baghdad and thereby give Iraqis an incentive to make peace among themselves. Petraeus was chosen for his experience in political-military conflicts, his intellect--including a Princeton Ph.D.--and a drive that has propelled his career from West Point through a near-fatal training accident (when he took an M-16 round to the chest) to the current challenge of bringing about the best possible end to a war that most Americans now regret waging.
Petraeus has many fans in Congress--which approved him overwhelmingly for the job and for his fourth star--but ebbing American patience means he does not have much time to produce.
Reviewing his record since February, Petraeus sits in a straight-back chair, arms folded, with a somber look on his face. Some neighborhoods are safer and fewer Iraqis are being murdered by Shiite death squads, he says, but there have been setbacks as well--particularly the devastating car bombs largely blamed on the Sunni terrorist group al Qaeda in Iraq.
"It takes a long time to clear a neighborhood," he says. "This is not for the impatient."
Under the plan, small groups of soldiers are fanning out to live in combat outposts and "joint security stations" to provide round-the-clock security to the population. Whereas U.S. troops previously returned to the safety of large, heavily fortified bases for the night, many are now living out among the people-and the enemy.
Since the last of five additional U.S. brigades will not be on the ground until June, Petraeus argues that it will not be possible to assess the results of the security plan until summer's end. But it is critical to get some political progress before then, he says. "This [strategy] is about buying time for Iraqis to reconcile," he says. The Shiite majority has already agreed in principle to share oil revenues with the Sunni and Kurdish minorities, but the details need to be enshrined in law. Similarly, there are four competing versions of a law that would allow more former regime members to participate in government. Provincial elections and provincial powers are two other pending matters. "We have to start getting progress on these issues," he says.