Friday, December 7, 2007; A26
BAGHDAD -- Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, said Thursday he applauds Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for helping, through a cease-fire, to reduce violent attacks in Iraq by 60 percent since June. It was unusual praise by a U.S. official for a relentless critic of the American role here.
But Petraeus and other commanders also warned of enduring threats to Iraq's security, saying the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq is again carrying out suicide bombings and trying to gain control of towns in northern Iraq -- and the U.S. military must therefore carefully calibrate any future troop reductions.
The Army's extended 15-month tours in Iraq, necessary to carry out this year's increase of 21,500 combat troops, will have to remain in place until at least the fall of 2008, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said Thursday after meeting with Army captains in Baghdad.
"Perhaps next fall or at some point late next year, we will be able to go back to 12-month tours. That is our hope," Gates told NBC News. Gates and Army leaders had set no timetable for ending 15-month tours but said they sought to do it as quickly as possible.
Petraeus outlined a strategy for handling what he called "the thinning out of our forces" as 17,500 soldiers and 4,000 Marines depart by July. He said he has asked each U.S. brigade commander to consider the U.S. and Iraqi forces and local volunteers they have available, gauge the intensity of the insurgent threat and map out incremental plans to "step back a bit" and shift to mentoring while allowing Iraqi forces to take the lead.
The transition strategy will link future troop reductions to continued improvements in security, which Petraeus called "heartening" in recent months. Weekly attacks in Iraq as of the end of November had declined to a level not seen consistently since mid-2005, he said. Iraqi civilian deaths are at their lowest level since the end of 2005, and November had the lowest number of U.S. troop deaths for 20 months, according to U.S. military figures.
Among several factors leading to the reduced violence, Petraeus pointed to what he called the decision by "a majority . . . of the militia" associated with Sadr to honor a cease-fire.
In striking contrast to the U.S. military's previous wariness -- if not hostility -- toward the young firebrand cleric, Petraeus praised Sadr personally for "working to rid his movement of criminal elements" and making a "pledge of honor" to uphold the cease-fire announced in August. He said the United States is in indirect dialogue with "senior members" of Sadr's organization to maintain the cease-fire.
"The Sadr trend stands for service to the people," and the goal is for Sadr and his followers to become "constructive partners in the way ahead," Petraeus said in an interview with defense reporters traveling with Gates.
Earlier this year, U.S. military and defense officials said Sadr had been weakened and his organization fragmented since the cleric left for Iran before the start of the boost in U.S. troops, apparently out of fear of being targeted.
"I wouldn't say he has been marginalized," Petraeus said Thursday. "He very much maintains contacts with his leaders and continues to give direction. . . . And there is an effort ongoing to try to get a grip on some of the nefarious actors who are associated with his movement."
Meanwhile, Sadr's rhetoric remains as anti-American as ever. "I speak to the head of evil Bush, go out of our land, we don't need you or your armies, the armies of darkness, your aircrafts, tanks . . . your fake freedom," said a statement issued under Sadr's name two days ago.
The cease-fire has helped U.S. and Iraqi forces target Shiite extremist groups, many of them based in Baghdad's large Shiite enclave of Sadr City, that continue to launch attacks despite the Sadr order. U.S. commanders have long sought to expand the presence of security forces inside Sadr City, which is now effectively controlled by Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army.
Negotiations have gone on for months between U.S. officers and intermediaries inside Sadr City to expand the security force presence into several outposts. A brigade of the Iraqi army is now positioned just outside Sadr City, poised to begin operations there soon.
But the leader of Sadr's political bloc in parliament, Nasar al-Rubaie, denied there had been any meetings with U.S. forces through parliament or Sadr's political committee.
In a related development, Petraeus said there had been a decrease in "signature attacks" in Iraq with weapons linked to Iran, such as 240mm rockets, portable air defense systems and explosively formed projectiles. But he said it remains unclear whether the Iranian government has directed a halt to the attacks or stopped providing the weapons.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, pushed out of western and central parts of the country, are seeking new sanctuaries in the north, in particular by exploiting fears of Kurdish expansionism among the Arab population, Col. Tony Thomas, assistant commander for the region, said in a briefing Wednesday.
Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, with 1.7 million people, received no extra U.S. troops and instead has been a proving ground for the Iraqi army and police, which have been assisted only by one U.S. battalion of troops as well as Special Operations forces in recent months. Violence has not fallen in the north as much it has elsewhere, and Mosul by some measures is now the most violent city in Iraq, U.S. officers said.
Petraeus said the U.S. military is planning "adjustments necessary to pursue" al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and stop them from establishing the kinds of bases they had in Anbar province and Baghdad.
"Nobody says anything about turning corners, seeing lights at the ends of tunnels," he said. "You just keep your head down and keep moving."
Correspondent Sudarsan Raghavan in Baghdad and special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.