Petraeus to suggest cuts; predicts smaller presence in Iraq
BAGHDAD — The top American commander in Iraq said Aug. 15 that he is preparing recommendations on troop cuts for an upcoming report to Congress, while Iraqis dug out hundreds of bodies from the worst terrorist massacre since the war began.
Gen. David Petraeus, who returns to Washington next month to deliver the report, predicted U.S. forces would have a smaller presence by next summer.
“We know that the surge has to come to an end. There’s no question about that. I think everyone understands that by about a year or so from now we’ve got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now,” Gen. Petraeus told reporters in Baghdad.
As he spoke, rescuers in northern Iraq used bare hands and shovels to claw through clay houses shattered by an onslaught of suicide bombings a day earlier that killed at least 250 and possibly as many as 500 members of an ancient religious sect. It was the deadliest attack of the Iraq war.
Gen. Petraeus said the “horrific and indiscriminate attacks” in the previously peaceful town of Qahataniya near the Syrian border were the work of al Qaeda in Iraq fighters.
The attack, Gen. Petraeus added, bolstered his argument against moving too quickly to draw down the 30,000 additional U.S. troops deployed in the first half of the year. U.S. troop strength in Iraq is currently at an alltime high of more than 160,000.
“The question is how do you [reduce U.S. troops] so that you can retain the gains we have fought so hard to achieve and so you can keep going.
“Again we are not at all satisfied where we are right now. We have made some progress but again there’s still a lot of hard work to be done against the different extremist elements that do threaten the new Iraq.”
The victims of the coordinated attack by four suicide bombers were Yazidis, a small Kurdish-speaking sect that has been targeted by Muslim extremists who consider its members to be blasphemers.
The blasts far away from districts covered by the U.S. troop surge crumbled buildings, trapping entire families beneath mud bricks and other wreckage. Entire neighborhoods were flattened.
Gen. Petraeus, who wrote the Army’s book on counterinsurgency, said he and his staff were “trying to do the battlefield geometry right now” as he prepared his troop-level recommendations for Congress.
One of most significant shifts for U.S. forces recently has been recruiting allies among former Sunni insurgents areas such as the western Anbar province. “A pretty big deal,” said Gen. Petraeus.
“You have to pinch yourself a little to make sure that is real because that is a very significant development in this kind of operation in counterinsurgency,” he said.
“It’s all about the local people. When all the sudden the local people are on the side of the new Iraq instead of on the side of the insurgents or even al Qaeda, that’s a very significant change.”
The general made his comments to a small group of reporters who accompanied him to the headquarters of a group of former Sunni insurgents who are now working with American and Iraqi forces against al Qaeda in western Baghdad’s Amariyah neighborhood.
Gen. Petraeus listened intently as the so-called Freedom Fighters’ 40year-old leader, who uses the nom de guerre Abu Abed, explained his transformation. He said he switched sides because al Qaeda was ravaging the neighborhood and trying to impose its austere version of Islam.
Members of the neighborhood volunteer army milled about, pistols strapped to their hips and AK-47 au- tomatic rifles at the ready.
Gen. Petraeus reviewed a short line of the auxiliary force, shook hands with each man and handed them a token.
Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, who unexpectedly accompanied Gen. Petraeus, promised Mr. Abed the Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad — now that it was calmer — would receive priority government attention for its crumbling infrastructure.
Gen. Petraeus asked Mr. Abed if he would do an interview with an Iraqi television crew that had joined the tour and tell Sunnis who fled the district to return to their homes because it was now safer. The diminutive Mr. Abed agreed and promised his protection to returnees.
The neighborhood commander does not talk about his background, and whether he was active in the Sunni insurgency.
When asked if Mr. Abed had been an insurgent before his change of heart, a U.S. military officer said, “I’m optimistic about his background.”
The official would not be named for fear of spoiling relations with Mr. Abed.