As the merits of staying in Iraq are debated in the US, the top American commander in Iraq says that a quick withdrawal of US troops will cause "greatly increased sectarian violence."
The release of a White House report Thursday, showing the Iraqi government had only made "satisfactory" progress on eight of 18 benchmarks, may accelerate a congressional push for a midterm accounting, with some critics saying July is the new September. Gen. David Petraeus is due to report to Congress on progress in Iraq in September.
But in an interview, General Petraeus insists, "September is September from my perspective."
"What the ambassador [to Iraq, Ryan Crocker] and I will do in September is to provide a forthright, comprehensive assessment of the situation at the time and provide discussion of the potential consequences of various courses of action that might be considered," he says.
In fact, while talking to officers here Wednesday at Patrol Base Murray, occupied by the US 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, the general stressed the importance of the increased numbers of troops in the effort to stabilize the areas in and around Baghdad. Establishing relationships with locals is vital in identifying Al Qaeda operatives and may only be sustainable, at least in the short term, with increased US presence, he said.
Prior to the establishment of the US camp three weeks ago, this area 19 miles south of Baghdad was an Al Qaeda sanctuary. "This area was a very important sanctuary for Al Qaeda for a number of years [since the 2003 US-led invasion]. They would plan and organize car bombs and bring foreign fighters and launch them into Baghdad," Petraeus says. "We tried to disrupt [their operations] ... but never took this away from them. That is what we're trying to do now – deny them this area."
The latest update from this outpost is "promising," he says, with local Iraqi leaders and civilians pointing out Al Qaeda operatives in the area. Such collaboration, say US commanders, is essential in stabilizing the restive provinces that surround Baghdad.
The US military reports a monthly total drop in sectarian violence from 3,200 Iraqi civilian casualties in December 2006 to 1,200 in June 2007. Levels of violence have remained roughly the same across Iraq, with decreases in attacks against civilians but increases in attacks against coalition forces.
This, senior military sources say, is to be expected in offensive operations and where the mission is to secure the population. From the start of the "surge" operations in February, total attacks against civilians, Iraqi security forces, and coalition forces have averaged between 900 and 1,100 per week, say military sources.
The military also measures progress in the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, in the mostly Sunni Anbar Province, and other parts of Baghdad, by increases in electricity to locals, decreases in attacks, and the opening of markets.
Progress, says Petraeus, is not limited to this area south of Baghdad, but throughout neighboring provinces. "The dynamic out there that is very surprising in the past several months is the increasing rejection by the Sunni population of Al Qaeda ideology," he says.
The prospect of any hasty removal of US troops has him concerned. "If we pull out there will be greatly increased sectarian violence, humanitarian concerns.... You don't know what could happen in terms of dangerous conflicts, what could happen along the Kurdish/Shiite/Sunni fault lines, or how [Iraq's] neighbors will react."
He says that "there are all kinds of dynamics to consider: Iran, Syria, and others have distinct interests. There are a number of different concerns hanging on the security situation."
The challenge, he says, is to connect the political and military progress and cooperation among provincial leaders (local tribal leaders and sheikhs) to the nationally elected leaders (mostly Shiites). "There are linkages possible," Petraeus says, but it will take time. The issues the Iraqis are grappling with are really fundamental issues; the US grappled with many of these same issues when hammering out states' rights, he explains.