By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 17, 2007 - The clock is ticking for American troop presence in Iraq, and if more time is needed, it will require more progress in the region, the commander of coalition troops there said today. "If the Iraqi security forces, the Iraqi people, the Iraqi political leaders can demonstrate that there should be hope for them making the most of the opportunity, that our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are fighting to provide them, indeed there could be time put on the clock, kept on the clock to enable this endeavor to go forward," Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, said in an interview today with Soldiers Radio and Television's Gail McCabe.
Results of the emergency political summit going on in Baghdad will be critical, he said. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called on Iraq's top Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders to meet this week in an effort to stabilize what Petraeus referred to as "political crisis."
"That's the situation we're in right now. We are waiting to see what the political leaders accomplish at the big summit that is ongoing in Baghdad," he said. "We need to see now: 'What is the progress made? ... And does that indeed point to a path that will take them forward?'"
The general said he is looking for two main accomplishments from the summit: a process for governance outlined and for the divided factions to reach agreements on legislation "critical to national reconciliation."
High turnover and the fact that many of the leaders are new and inexperienced in their positions contribute to some of the instability, he said.
On a positive note, Petraeus said, the Iraqi government passed more than 60 laws this year, including a budget, a law on private refinery operations, and other "very important legislation."
But, he added, the "big" issues crucial to taking the country forward have not been resolved.
Meanwhile, Iraqi security forces continue to develop, Petraeus said.
The top leaders of the nine Iraqi national police officer brigades have been replaced in an effort by the Iraqi government to rid its ranks of corrupt police officers and those with strong sectarian ties.
"They are serious about this. There are dozens and dozens of very good Iraqi security forces out there. They are fighting; they are dying for their county," he said.
The surge of additional U.S. troops into Baghdad and other areas is continuing steady progress that has left the enemy pushed back, off balance and on the defensive, the general said. "We believe that we have taken the initiative away from the enemy ... in a number of particular areas in which they had a degree of sanctuary in the past," Petraeus said.
Petraeus also cited recent progress in Anbar province, specifically in the once-troubled city of Ramadi, and noted there has not been an indirect-fire attack there since May. "This was a city in which violence was prevalent everywhere, all the time. If you went from one area to another, you better be in an M-1 tank or an M-2 Bradley," Petraeus said.
Now the focus is on reconstruction, and officials have walked through the marketplace without wearing body armor or a Kevlar helmet, he said. "It's a result of the local population ... finally rejecting al Qaeda in Iraq, its Taliban-like ideology, its indiscriminate violence, and other practices, and standing up and fighting against them, and us helping them as they did that," Petraeus said.
Despite the progress, though, al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremist groups still have the capability to lash out with violence, he warned. "There still is an enormous amount of work to be done. Al Qaeda remains a very formidable enemy, and the militia extremists, especially those supported by Iran, ... remain very, very big concerns to the Iraqi leaders ... and ourselves," Petraeus said.
He described al Qaeda in Iraq as the "wolf closest to the sled," because they carry out the most horrific attacks, causing the biggest loss of life. The group tries constantly to return Iraq to levels of sectarian violence that were so destructive this past winter, he said.