Petraeus: Al Qaeda remains 'wolf closest to the sled'

Although the top U.S. commander in Iraq says that the military has made substantial progress in its fight against the radical Islamic militants.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Nearly a month after testifying before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus says that keeping pressure on Al Qaeda in Iraq is among the most pressing issues facing the US military here.

General Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, spoke to a small group of reporters on Saturday at Forward Operating Base Caldwell in central Iraq, about 10 miles from the Iranian border. Among the challenges facing coalition forces there, the general listed the role of Iran, Shiite militias, strengthening Iraqi security forces, and working with the local and national government to meet the people's basic needs.

The Al Qaeda threat

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Although Petraeus admitted that local militias are a problem and could potentially be a long-term issue, he said Al Qaeda remains "the wolf closest to the sled ... the enemy bent on causing the most sectarian violence, inflicting the most horrific casualties, and damaging the infrastructure in the most difficult way." He added that US forces were making progress, but they must continue to apply pressure on the terrorist group. "We have our teeth in them and we've got to keep them down," he said.

The actions against Al Qaeda are encouraging, but Petraeus says he is a realist. "There have been substantial gains, but Al Qaeda is like a fighter that's been knocked around, but still has enormous power and access to a variety of elements of the economy."

The way to affect Al Qaeda and the militias is to break up their financial network and the funding they can generate, he explained. And the surge of US forces, he said, seems to be working.

During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends this weekend, Al Qaeda elements vowed to increase attacks on the US military, Iraqi forces, and the Sunni tribesmen who are cooperating with them. A car bombing in Kirkuk on Thursday, targeting a traffic police chief, killed at least seven and wounded at least 50.

However, overall violence, which has historically heightened during Ramadan, is at the lowest level in more than a year, according to Iraqi government and Pentagon figures. "Even the Iraqi government published that civilian deaths have been drastically reduced and other forms of violence are coming down."

Iran's involvement

Dealing with the porous Iranian border and tricky diplomacy issues remain problematic. Coalition forces have intercepted "quite a few missiles and components for EFPs [explosively formed projectiles] ... picked up in various locations in Baghdad, southeast of Baghdad, and elsewhere in the country. EFPs only come from Iran and are only used by militias, so [they are] a signature trademark of the militia extremists," Petraeus said.

While he stopped short of directly implicating the government of Iran in killing US servicemen, Petraeus noted that "Iranians are responsible for providing the weapons, training, funding, and, in some cases, the direction for operations that have indeed killed soldiers. Directly, they have guided certain operations, some back in January."

The military within Iraq is responding by blocking "as many of these shipments as [it] can by locating caches and destroying them, by detaining some of the militia extremists that have been using the weapons, by attacking the networks that link the militia extremists with their Qods Force [one of the Iranian Army's special operations unit] counterparts, and by detaining some Qods Force members."

But regularly stopping these weapons from getting to militants has proven difficult. "There is no question that Iran is providing advanced rocket propelled grenades (RPGs); some shoulder-fired, Stinger-like air defense missiles; and 240mm rockets in addition to mortars and small arms. They are implicated in the assassination of governors in southern provinces," Petraeus said.

Working with militias

Controlling the mostly Shiite militias is also of prominent concern to the government and people of Iraq, said Petraeus. "Having these thugs and criminals in their neighborhood is a major issue. We are not creating more militias or arming tribes. We are trying to take advantage of a situation in which locals, in some cases for the first time ... are volunteering to join the police," said Petraeus. "They've asked whether they can turn their guns on Al Qaeda instead of [on] coalition forces. We said that would be OK," explained Petraeus.

To reassure "ourselves and the Iraqi government, the neighborhood volunteers are being integrated into legitimate security forces," he explained.

The intent is not for the volunteers to remain on "our payroll indefinitely, but to get them started. We have the mechanism in place to get that started rapidly, then as a reassurance to everyone ... they are partnered with legitimate Iraqi forces, and with the coalition forces."

This dynamic has been "very interesting," said Petraeus. "We see the Iraqi Army acting as mentors. They step up and act as big brothers to these younger brothers."

Improving Iraqi security forces

The trustworthiness of the national and local police forces remains a concern. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) has taken steps to thin out dubious recruits from their ranks. Some corrupt elements have been replaced, but there is "still work to be done," said Petraeus. "The MOI has been chipping away at that [problem]. The Italian Carabineri have come to help, but there's a lot of work to be done and innumerable challenges," he added.

Future of local governments in Anbar

Western Anbar Province is still recovering from the recent assassination of local leader Sheikh Siddar Abu Risha, but Petraeus described his brother, Sheikh Ahmad, as a "brilliant, impressive individual." He added that, Mr. Ahmad's tribe "is not out to run Iraq, but to achieve what they believe to be their legitimate amount of influence – to make the Euphrates River Valley no longer a hotbed of Al Qaeda extremists, but a decent place to live and work and raise a family."

The new sheikh "clearly has vision and has thought through his relationship with the government of Iraq, [Prime Minister] Nouri al-Maliki, Sunni and Shiite religious leaders, the tribes of the Euphrates River Valley, and the government of Anbar [Province], and coalition forces."

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