By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service
June 17, 2007 – Sectarian murders and executions in Baghdad are declining, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said today on the "Fox News Sunday" television program. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told host Chris Wallace via satellite link from Baghdad that the U.S. troop surge has helped reduce sectarian murders and executions in Baghdad by one-third between January and April. And despite an uptick in violence in May, the levels of violence are again going down.
"The fact is, as we go on the offensive, the enemy is going to respond," Petraeus said.
Last week Petraeus received his full compliment of additional troops. He said surge operations are now truly just beginning, and he characterized what has been done thus far as "shaping operations." The general said the additional troops give him the combat power to launch operations in al Qaeda sanctuaries where there has been little permanent coalition force presence in the past.
Petraeus said about 30 percent of Baghdad is a major concern, because these areas have sharp fault lines between Shiia and Sunni Muslims. "We are focusing on them quite intently," he said. "And the additional forces will enable us to conduct additional operations in those areas."
U.S. troops are also moving in greater numbers to areas just north and south of Baghdad, and have seen marked success in Anbar province.
"We're ahead of where I thought we'd be at this point in time in some areas and behind in others," he said. "Anbar province is an area, as you'll recall, that was assessed to be lost less than a year or so ago by the military intelligence folks. There has been a stunning reversal out there as tribes have said, 'Whoever opposes al Qaeda is with us.'"
These tribes want to fight al Qaeda and have asked for coalition help, he said. Petraeus said this is a major step forward, because coalition forces have linked their help through the Iraqi Ministries of Interior and Defense, binding tribes with the Iraqi government.
The general said he bases his success assessment on personnel observations, such as walking, driving and flying around Baghdad. "The fact is that there are signs of normalcy throughout a good bit of Baghdad," he said. "There are tens of thousands of kids out tonight playing soccer."
He did not downplay the negative things now occurring in Iraq, like the threat al Qaeda and extremist militias pose in Baghdad. Sectarian violence is a cycle that U.S. troops must break, he said.
"Al Qaeda is the Sunni violence," he said. "Al Qeada is the face of what is happening on the extremist Sunni side. They are carrying out the bulk of the sensational attacks.
"The central front of al Qaeda's terror war is focused on Iraq," he added. "So I think it is appropriate to emphasize the role that al Qaeda in Iraq is playing, and the role that they play in provoking extremist militias on the Shiia side, as a justification for what they are doing."
Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are scheduled to give an assessment of the situation in Iraq in September. The general said the progress report would simply provide a "snapshot" of what is happening there. "It will be a forthright assessment of what we've achieved and what we haven't achieved," he said.
Petraeus said political progress has not met expectations thus far. "There certainly have not been substantial achievements in that regard so far," he said.
However, there are pieces of legislation on which Iraqi leaders are coming to grips, he added. "So it is time to see now if these important laws can go forward," he said.
The general said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' meetings in Baghdad last week with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki went well. "In fact, he (Gates) started off by complimenting the prime minister and other leaders with whom he met on their response to the Samarra mosque bombing," Petraeus said. "They were united and decisive in that effort, and we think they're response in ordering rapid steps to be taken has in fact helped hold down the level of violence."
The Shiia Golden Mosque in Samarra was first bombed in February 2006, sparking massive sectarian violence.
It is premature to speculate how long the surge will last, Petraeus said. By late summer the U.S. will be better able to determine its length, he said. "Our first focus is on doing all that we can as we truly now launch the surge," he said.
The general said the U.S. could indeed win in Iraq and leave behind a stable democratic country.
"If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be here," he said. "I wouldn't be leading the finest of young American men and women who are putting their lives on the line every day."