Wednesday, September 03, 2008

General David Petraeus sees huge progress in Iraq,25197,24285519-601,00.html Patrick Walters, Baghdad | September 03, 2008 THERE has been "enormous progress" in improving security across Iraq and there are real indications that the country is finally turning away from the endemic violence of recent years. As he prepares to leave Baghdad within days, General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, cites a host of statistics that indicate the war-torn country is at last "spiralling upwards" towards a more normal existence. In an exclusive hour-long farewell interview with The Australian in his office in the ornate presidential palace in Baghdad, General Petraeus sees signs of a return to more normal conditions in the capital and increasingly, across a country that only 20 months ago was still riven by horrific sectarian conflict. General Petraeus is leaving Iraq in two weeks to become the US's CENTCOM commander, a post that will see him charged with responsibility for the wars in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Last Sunday, there were no serious security incidents across the whole of Baghdad. On Monday in western Anbar province, the scene of years of tough counter-insurgency warfare against al-Qa'ida and Sunni militias by US marines, the Americans formally handed over security control to Iraqi forces. General Petraeus, the principal architect of the successful 2007-08 surge of US troops that restored security across Baghdad, says the signs of positive change are everywhere. "I would note that obviously there has been enormous progress. We have gone from a situation where 14-15 months ago there were 180 attacks a day in Iraq. Now there are on average about 25 attacks a day. "If you could cut down more on the number of suicide-vest and car-bomb attacks, frankly, you would be at a residual level." Iraq's economy is also on an upswing with record oil exports, steadily increasing foreign and domestic investment and significant improvements in the supply of essential services, including electricity. "It is encouraging to look at the metrics. It is heartening. It gives Iraq new hope, if you will. "A country that was on the verge of civil war is now an increasingly important contributor to the global economy and to the community of nations." In the next few days, General Petraeus will present his latest recommendations on the future of the US's 140,000-strong troop presence in Iraq to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. The report is tipped to recommend further gradual reductions over the coming months. But it will caution against any drastic cut over the next year as Iraqi forces increasingly take full responsibility for security in major towns and cities. "We are in the midst right now of finalising the assessment. It (a US troop drawdown) is not just units on a map. It's the enemy situation. It's the growth in capability of the Iraqi security forces, which has been pretty substantial. "It's local governance. It's local ethno-sectarian harmony or lack thereof. "We will see in the coming week that we can get to the point where we have the confidence to make some additional recommendations." General Petraeus pointed to the Dora district in southeast Baghdad as an example of the change in the security outlook in the capital. "I went through Dora on a patrol the second day after I took command (February 11, 2007)," he said. "It was devastated. It was a war zone. There were no shops open and very few signs of life - deserted streets, garbage everywhere." Dora had been torn apart by a lethal combination of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia and steady encroachment by al-Qa'ida fighters. "It has now come back to life in a very big way," he said. "There are over a 1000 shops open now. They just keep opening and the schools are reopening." General Petraeus said there were many signs of renewal in Baghdad, including dozens of swimming pools and a major municipal works program. In December 2006, there were an average of 55 violent deaths a day across the city compared with about five or less now. "Sectarian violence now as a component of violence in Baghdad is virtually nil and doesn't register on the scale that we used to show violence back in the winter of 2006-07," he said. Asked whether Iraq had finally turned the corner, General Petraeus told The Australian: "We have to be very wary about premature declarations. I would not offer that assessment at this point. I don't think you will find any commanders on the ground who will offer such an assessment or use phrases such as 'light at the end of the tunnel'. "I think if anything we have learned in Iraq it is wise to be cautious in assessments and to recognise that there are always surprises lurking around every corner." General Petraeus said that besides the 30,000-strong surge in US troops last year, the 135,000 lift in Iraqi forces and the employment of more than 100,000 "Sons of Iraq", concerned local citizens, had been critical in achieving more stability. As the future of US troop levels in Iraq is debated by the Maliki Government in Baghdad and back in Washington, General Petraeus said 11 out of 18 provinces were now controlled by Iraqi forces. With the UN mandate due to expire in December, a status-of-forces agreement between Iraq and the US is now the subject of intense discussions. "Everyone has wanted Iraq to assert its sovereignty and, by golly, they are asserting their sovereignty," General Petraeus said.

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