By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 12, 2007 - The top commander and diplomat in Iraq told reporters at the National Press Club today that what happens in Iraq is critical to long-term U.S. security. "Achieving our national interest in Iraq is very important" and a critical part of the overall U.S. national strategy to make the country safer, said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq. "The central front of al Qaeda's global war on terror is in Iraq."
Petraeus was joined at the Press Club event by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker.
Petraeus repeated the statement he made yesterday to the Senate Armed Services Committee that he couldn't spell out exactly what impact al Qaeda resurgence in Iraq might have on the U.S. homeland.
"I was trying very hard yesterday to avoid becoming more than the MNFI commander," he said. "And so when I was asked about the global war on terrorism, I thought that that perhaps is a question for those who are carrying out the global war on terrorism. I'm carrying out one piece of that, which is the part that is prosecuted inside Iraq."
Petraeus said the U.S. strategy in Iraq is showing progress in flushing out al Qaeda and other extremists and reducing violence. Coalition and Iraqi operations have left al Qaeda "considerably diminished" and "much more on the run" than Petraeus said he could recall since they established themselves there. "We believe that al Qaeda in Iraq is off balance," he said.
He emphasized, however, that evidence shows al Qaeda hasn't given up and continues working to regain territory it's lost. The terrorist group remains "very dangerous," he said.
Petraeus said he considers al Qaeda in Iraq "the wolf closest to the sled" because it's been behind the most horrific attacks in Iraq and has generated the most ethno-sectarian violence. Particularly since the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra in February 2006, this violence has been "tearing the fabric of Iraqi society," he said.
Crocker said he's convinced that any al Qaeda resurgence in Iraq would be devastating, not just to Iraq, but also to the United States. "We have to assume that anywhere al Qaeda can find operating room, space, the ability to organize ... (and) consolidate, they are going to use that to come after us," he said.
Petraeus and Crocker told reporters the troop surge in Iraq is showing progress in countering the threat al Qaeda and other extremists pose. They pointed to evidence of that progress: reduced violence, greater Iraqi security force responsibility, and increased tribal cooperation with coalition efforts.
This assessment, which they delivered over the past two days to the Senate and House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, drew sharp criticism from some corners and, in some cases, personal attacks.
The general, who stated at all three congressional hearings this week that his assessment reflected his views alone -- not those of the Pentagon, the White House or Congress -- said a poem by Rudyard Kipling proved helpful as his integrity came under attack.
Kipling's poem, "If," begins, "If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. ..." It goes on to talk about the importance of trusting yourself when others doubt you and of maintaining your principles even when you're hated, lied about and condemned.
Pressed to comment on the attacks against him, Petraeus offered a simple response. "I disagree with the message of those who are exercising the 1st Amendment right that generations of soldiers have sought to preserve for Americans," he said. "Some of it was just flat completely wrong, and the rest is at least more than arguable."
Petraeus showed more of his human side as today's news conference opened, initially telling reporters he planned to begin by reviewing the statement he'd made during the past two days of hearings.
"Actually, I'm not sure if even I can bear giving the shortened version of my opening statement for a fourth time," he laughed. "And I know you don't want to hear it for a fourth time."