By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
March 7, 2010 - Despite sectarian and ethnic differences across Iraq's political landscape, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he expects new Iraqi leaders will continue their previous government's efforts to employ inclusive coalitions to bridge those divides. Today marks the second democratic, parliamentary elections held in Iraq since the fall of the late dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Petraeus, commander of U.S. Central Command, told CNN's GPS television news program host Fareed Zakaria.
Petraeus said he would like to see the new Iraqi government be as inclusive as the previous one. That is to say, he said, the new government would continue "to be generally representative of the people, responsive to all the people, and to continue the progress that has been achieved over the course of the last couple of years, again, in the economic, social and political realms."
The way forward in Iraq, Petraeus said, depends on continued accommodations between Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and other members of Iraq's diverse sectarian and ethnic population. Iraq's population is majority Shia Muslim.
"All progress that has been made [in Iraq] to date -– all of the legislation that's been passed and so forth -- has all required cross-sectarian, cross-ethnic coalitions," Petraeus said.
Petraeus also expects continued employment of such coalitions in the running of the Iraqi government.
"Because, when you do the math, there's no way that a prime minister will be elected without a cross-sectarian, and indeed, cross-ethnic coalition developing to elect that individual" and other key legislators.
In a statement released by the White House today, President Barack Obama congratulated Iraqis "for casting their ballots in this important parliamentary election"
Obama praised Iraqis "who refused to be deterred by acts of violence" and exercised their right to vote. Iraqi security forces are responsible for maintaining security for today's election. There have been reports of some deaths due to insurgent actions. "We mourn the tragic loss of life today," Obama continued, "and honor the courage and resilience of the Iraqi people who once again defied threats to advance their democracy."
Meanwhile, Petraeus told Zakaria, there are now about 96,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. That number, the general said, is expected to decrease to about 50,000 U.S. forces by the end of August.
"And, of course, with the new government in place, there will be the dialogue" between the U.S. and Iraqi governments on future security agreements.
Other topics Petraeus discussed with Zakaria included Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the issue of homosexual service within the U.S. military.
Regarding alleged Iranian aspirations to obtain nuclear weapons, Petraeus said he's not sure whether the Iranian leadership has yet made the decision to actually develop such devices.
However, the general said, it's important to realize Iran has been working to acquire "all of the components of a program to produce nuclear weapons" and the means to deliver them.
Many Middle East nations, including Israel, Petraeus said, look at alleged Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear arms as a "worrisome" development. That's why, he said, the United States and its allies are considering employing stricter sanctions against Iran if it doesn't come clean about its nuclear aspirations.
Turning to Afghanistan, Petraeus said counterinsurgency operations in Marja have gone well.
"This is a clear, hold and build, or re-build, depending on the damage done, and transition," Petraeus said of the Afghan-coalition operations in Marja that began Feb. 13.
In order to be successful, he said, the Marja operation has to be seen by the Afghan people as a means of bettering their lives.
Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has been fully involved in details of the Marja operation, Petraeus said. Karzai, he added, also "has rightly" called into question what occurred when Afghan civilians have inadvertently become casualties of war.
Turning from Afghanistan to Pakistan, Petraeus pointed to the Pakistani government's realization that internal extremists are directly threatening its existence. Pakistani military forces have been engaging extremists operation in the country's Swat Valley region.
"That has been a very impressive counterinsurgency operation," Petraeus said of Pakistani military forces' gains made against insurgents in Swat Valley.
Pakistan's leaders, Petraeus said, are realizing the truth of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates' assertion that Taliban, al-Qaida and other extremists operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region share a symbiotic relationship and belong to a syndicate of terrorism that threatens all law-abiding nations.
Zakaria asked Petraeus about his stance regarding the possible repeal of the 1993 "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law by Congress regarding homosexuals serving in the U.S. military. Defense Secretary Gates has directed a 10-month review to determine the potential impacts across the military if the law is repealed.
Petraeus observed that he'd once served with some CIA officers of both genders who'd been reputed to be homosexual. The general implied that the two CIA officers' reputed sexual preference didn't seem to negatively impact their work performance or professionalism.
Petraeus said he's slated to appear before Congress soon to provide his views about homosexuals serving in the military.
"You, know, I think this is something that can be worked through, frankly," Petraeus told Zakaria. Other nations' militaries that allow homosexual men and women to openly serve, he noted, employ "very sensible and pragmatic policies."