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Petraeus Cites Areas of Improvement in Baghdad

April 4, 2007 at 5:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Now to our Newsmaker interview with General David Petraeus, the top U.S. general in Iraq. I spoke to him this morning from the Green Zone in Baghdad.

General, welcome.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: Thanks very much, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: What effect is the Iraq debate in Washington having on your operations on the ground in Iraq?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, to tell you the truth, Jim, we’ve more than got our hands full and occupied out here. We’re certainly aware of the debate that’s ongoing back there, but the fact is, we’re pretty focused on what it is that we’re engaged in out here, and we’re really trying to stay focused on that. Our mission is very clear, and that’s what we’re intent on accomplishing.

JIM LEHRER: Any sign that it is affecting the troops in any way?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: No, not that I have seen. Again, it’s a matter of discussion at various times, but our mission is very clear. And as long as that is our mission, that is certainly, again, what we’re focused on.

JIM LEHRER: Is it affecting your own morale, your own feeling of support toward you and your mission at all?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Jim, I’ve felt like I’ve had a fairly heavy rucksack here. And I’ve got a lot of great folks out here to help carry that rucksack, frankly.

Occasionally, you feel another rock being put in there, but this is a really consuming endeavor. It’s, frankly, the most consuming endeavor of my professional life.

And, again, it tends to more than occupy one’s day. And you don’t have a lot of time to think about other things, other than just getting on with the business at hand out here in Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about setting withdrawal deadlines for American troops, as some Democrats have suggested?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, there’s no question that we all want to see progress and that it’s very important to convey the need for progress to our Iraqi partners, our Iraqi counterparts, and so forth. And the congressional delegations, the policymakers in Washington, those of us on the ground here have certainly endeavored to do that.

Having said that, I’m not sure that hard-and-fast deadlines are useful, in the sense of providing the enemies out here, you know, just a time to which they have to hang tough and then know that we would be going.

So, again, I’ll leave that. I’m happy to leave that to the policymakers back there. I’m a soldier out here with a very clear mission, as I said. And, again, it’s a pretty good time to be in Baghdad as opposed to Washington, I think.

JIM LEHRER: But the debate, as you know, General, in Washington right now is about you, General Petraeus, and the troops who serve under you, and both sides are claiming various effects. One of them is saying that this debate itself, the votes in the House and the Senate, are undermining what you and your troops are trying to do. Is that correct?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, Jim, I think, again, you can ask them what it is that the objectives of the various proposals are. What we have generally thought is, you know, what is the effect of these various debates, these various policy proposals, and so forth on our partners, on the various extremist elements who we’re trying to counter and so forth?

And I think some of that is debatable, intellectually debatable. And some of it, frankly, is not as intellectually debatable. And, again, I think some of that can be deciphered pretty clearly by folks.

JIM LEHRER: I don’t want to stay on this, you know, forever here, but I’m trying to get at the central point, is that, what is happening, both in the House and the Senate and elsewhere, is it hurting your effort? Is it hurting the effort of U.S. troops, as has been charged by the president and others, yes or no? That’s what I’m trying to get at.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: And what I’ve been trying to get at, Jim, is to go around this minefield rather than stumbling into it, frankly.

Again, as I said, I’m privileged to command an organization as a soldier. It’s up to other people to determine the policies, to resource those policies from which our mission emanates.

If those resources are not forthcoming, then, obviously, it would have an impact on us. If things are done that give aid and comfort to the enemy or worry our partners, then obviously that does not help.

And, again, I’ll let the folks back there debate those various effects. We pretty much have our shoulder to the wheel and our heads down, and we’re pushing on with this mission at hand.

JIM LEHRER: Thus far, though, then, what you’re saying is, there have been no such effects, right?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, I mean, our Iraqi counterparts occasionally need to be reassured of our commitment. And I think the enemy periodically has to be reminded of our determination. And we’ve sought to do both of those at various times here.

Encouraging signs in Baghdad

Gen. David Petraeus
U.S. Army
There have been some encouraging indicators in Baghdad, in terms of a reduction in sectarian murders. There have been some families returning; there have certainly been revivals in marketplaces.

JIM LEHRER: How would you characterize the level of progress on your mission thus far? You're seven weeks in, essentially. Give us a progress report.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well it is, as you note, it's still early days. We have been consistent, I think, in saying that it will be months and not days or weeks before we see real indicators of progress.

There have been some encouraging indicators in Baghdad, in terms of a reduction in sectarian murders. There have been some families returning; there have certainly been revivals in marketplaces.

We have actually hardened a variety of the different markets, these huge markets in which tens of thousands of Iraqis will shop at any given time on a given day, and that has taken place. So those have been encouraging.

The detection and destruction of three car bomb factories now in the last three or four weeks, two car bomb networks, one of which, by the way, killed some 650 Iraqis or more, by our calculations, in the preceding two-and-a-half months.

Usual numbers have -- really, more than the usual numbers of caches of weapons, one that had well over 120 improvised explosive devices worth of equipment for explosively formed projectiles, those particularly lethal ANI armor munitions with which we've had to contend in the past year or two.

On the other hand, the enemy, al-Qaida in particular, has certainly still sought to and, in fact, carried out sensational attacks at various points, trying to reignite sectarian violence and, in some cases, ethnic violence in, for example, Kirkuk.

Those have generally, almost always, been unsuccessful in reigniting sectarian violence, although that was the case in a horrific incident in Tall Afar in western Anbar province in the northwestern part of Iraq a week or so ago and had to be tamped down by interior ministry, defense officials in the Iraqi army.

So, again, mixed results, to be truthful, some encouraging indicators in Baghdad, but then the enemy seeking to take violence outside of Baghdad. And we've certainly gone after al-Qaida, as they have sought to open new fronts in Diyala province north of Baghdad, in the far north, and in the northeast, around Kirkuk.

There have been successes against some of the extremist militias, and these have been supported by the Iraqi government. And, in fact, noteworthy, earlier this week, was the investigative hearing of a national police officer who was allegedly involved in torture and killings during the height of the sectarian violence that took place in the fall and winter of 2006 in the early part of this year.

That was an important sign that this government is taking actions against extremists of either sect. And, again, that was an encouraging development.

Fighting al-Qaida

Gen. David Petraeus
U.S. Army
We expected, frankly, that, as the pressure was exerted in Baghdad on al-Qaida in particular, but also on some of the extremist militia elements, that they would migrate north and south respectively. And that has been the case.

JIM LEHRER: I looked at some casualty figures, General, in the last seven weeks. As of today, more than 160 Americans have been killed, as I saw it, and more than 5,000 Iraqis and double the number of Iraqi police from February to March. Do those figures -- what do those figures tell you and tell the American people about the level of progress, if anything?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, one thing that it tells us is that Iraqi security forces, certainly, are on the front lines and are fighting and dying for their country. They are committed to this endeavor.

It also tells us, as I noted a second ago, that al-Qaida is still capable and able to cause significant death of innocent civilians. In fact, that has rebounded against them in some parts of the country.

While finding the level of sectarian violence upon returning here was, frankly, something quite disheartening to see, on the other hand, going into Anbar province to the west of Baghdad and seeing Sunni Arab tribes fighting against al-Qaida was very heartening.

In fact, that's a major development in a province that, as you'll recall, some six or eight months ago, many were ready to write off as a lost cause, and all of a sudden you have cities all the way from the border, al-Qaim through Haditha, Hit, Ramadi and Fallujah, where tribes have volunteered for the Iraqi security forces.

In fact, in the latest recruiting effort, which used to draw minimal numbers of Iraqis willing to serve in the Iraqi army or the Iraqi police in Anbar province, there were over 2,000 volunteers for the latest training. And, again, that's quite a shift and quite -- frankly, it's a stunning development and reflects the frustration that the Sunni Arab tribes in Anbar have had with al-Qaida and what al-Qaida has done to them, to their sheiks, their families, their young men and, frankly, to their businesses and livelihoods.

It has really had a devastating effect. And they have said, "No more," and stood up and voted with themselves and with their young men.

JIM LEHRER: On the Baghdad operation specifically, are you concerned as some are, General, that by putting so much emphasis and so many troops -- both Iraqi and American troops -- on the Baghdad operation that other parts of the country, like Tall Afar and other places, are being hit because they don't have the troops that were there before, because many of them have been moved to Baghdad? Is there a problem there?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: There have not been that many moved from there. There are virtually none from the coalition that have been moved to Baghdad. And the number of Iraqi battalions that have been moved from those locations are only about four or so from north of Baghdad; the others have generally come from the south.

It is a concern though -- again, we expected, frankly, that, as the pressure was exerted in Baghdad on al-Qaida in particular, but also on some of the extremist militia elements, that they would migrate north and south respectively. And that has been the case.

We have chased them in some cases. As you may know, we deployed a Stryker battalion from Baghdad to Diyala province, just north of Baghdad, northeast Baquba, which is a city in the so-called fault line areas between both sects and ethnic groups.

We have reinforced with some special operations elements the areas in Mosul and Nineveh province. So we do believe that we are keeping the pressure on, in fact, in those areas, as those elements, in a sense, squirt or move out of Baghdad.

And we are also going after them in the Baghdad belts. In fact, as these additional forces come in, they are not just going to the interior of Baghdad. In some cases, they're going to the so-called belts around Baghdad, the so-called throat of Baghdad, that have often been battle zones in which we have generally not dominated in the past but do need to dominate if we're to provide improved security in Baghdad proper.

McCain's visit to Baghdad

Gen. David Petraeus
U.S. Army
In a city like Baghdad, there will be seven million people going about their daily lives, despite the fact that there may have been violence in the city that day.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McCain was with you last weekend in Baghdad. And he was talking about how he was able to walk around on the streets of Baghdad, particularly in a market. But today Iraqi tradesmen in Baghdad called that whole thing a propaganda move.

What can you tell us about that? Was it just simply a propaganda move, a photo-op?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: No, I mean, he spent an hour in the market. I was actually with him. He was in a baseball cap. He did wear body armor, because we advised that he ought to do that. Certainly, there was security around him. I mean, nobody ever wants to lose, you know, senior senator or the multinational force Iraq commander in their area of operations.

But having said that, there were tens of thousands of Iraqis in that market. It's the largest or second-largest market in Baghdad. It is one of those that has been hardened by the placement of concrete barriers literally all around it.

And it may be as much as a kilometer, almost a mile long, so this is an enormous market, as I said, tens of thousands of Iraqis in it. He was not protected by a cocoon of security. Yep, there was security there, but he was out -- actually he helped the Iraqi economy quite a bit, bought a number of carpets, in fact. And he haggled with the merchants himself, with an interpreter, and was moving all around very freely.

So, I mean, he asked to be allowed to drive down the airport road, to be able to go out and actually see some parts of Baghdad that congressional delegations do not normally see. We go down to these markets fairly frequently, several times a week, to see how it's going, and the revival of the markets is one of those indicators, in fact, that we watch.

And it was good to be able to let him see one of these very vibrant markets, which, by the way, eight weeks ago, was hit by a car bomb, before right around the start of the Baghdad security operation, with devastating effects, with dozens and dozens of Iraqis killed, before vehicles were excluded from traveling into the market during its operation.

JIM LEHRER: But as you know, the reports describe that situation slightly differently. They say there were armed helicopters overhead. There were armed Humvees all around. There were more than 100 armed U.S. troops around, protecting Senator McCain and the congressional delegation, that this was hardly a routine visit to a market. So which is it?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, there was considerable security, as I said, Jim, around it. Actually, there's security when I go down there, as well.

But having said that, I mean, a suicide vest bomber could have walked up to him just as easily as they could have walked up to me. We were not, you know, surrounding him, again, with some kind of cocoon of soldiers. He moved around freely.

We have helicopters usually flying when I'm actually out in the markets, as well, I mean, sometimes whether you know it or not, because, as I mentioned, no one wants to lose, you know, some high-ranking guy on their watch.

Again, having said that, there are snipers that are always possible. There are others who are possible in these marketplaces. You cannot control that kind of activity. And, again, I thought, you know, it was a fairly routine stop out there, in terms of just sort of strolling through a market, albeit with, you know, squads of guys out there in that marketplace.

But they are fairly heavily patrolled markets anyway, with Iraqi -- these markets are always controlled during the time that they're in operation to prevent vehicles, in fact, from moving through the access barriers when those markets are open. They're only allowed to move vehicles in and out, when the markets are shut, to deliver goods. And then they're excluded.

JIM LEHRER: Senator McCain also said the news media, American news media, was not giving the American people the full picture of what was happening in Iraq. Do you share that?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Jim, that's a tough one. I mean, I think that, if there is a sensational attack in Iraq, it deserves coverage. But that does tend to crowd out the fact that, in a city like Baghdad, there will be seven million people going about their daily lives, despite the fact that there may have been violence in the city that day.

As we drive around, as we fly around, you know, there are soccer leagues out here. The national soccer team is on its practice fields. There are all the signs of normalcy in Baghdad, albeit, again, in a city that may have been hit by violence on that given day.

Significance of Tall Afar

Gen. David Petraeus
U.S. Army
We're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the Washington clock.

JIM LEHRER: Well, General, let me just ask you then directly which is the most important and relevant to the reality of Iraq at the moment, Senator McCain and his group being able to go on a brief walk through a market, or what happened at Tall Afar, where more than 200 Iraqis died last week in an exchange of sectarian violence?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Jim, obviously, what happened in Tall Afar is very, very significant. It was a big concern to all of us, because it was a case of al-Qaida succeeding in doing what it has tried to do, again, for several months, which is to reignite some degree of sectarian violence.

Now, again, the Iraqis were able to get that under control with some coalition assistance. It was really the Iraqi army and other Iraqi authorities and the ministry of interior and defense officials that flew up there, by the way, on an Iraqi air force plane with relief supplies.

Having said that, I think it is also significant that Senator McCain could spend an hour in a market that was booming that two months ago was hit by a car bomb and caused horrific damage. And, in fact, we showed him the location where that car bomb went off, and it's an area that is actually being rebuilt now.

So, again, both stories are important, one probably more important than the other, given the importance of tamping down the sectarian violence that really did dramatically change the situation here throughout the latter part of 2006 and through the winter, because that sectarian violence did tear the fabric of Iraqi society. And it is something that now the Iraqi government and the coalition are having to deal with in a very substantial way.

JIM LEHRER: General, finally, at your confirmation hearings, following up what we've been talking about here, at your confirmation hearings in January, you said you would report back to Congress regularly and candidly about what was going on. And do you feel you have done that?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, I did a secure video teleconference with leaders of the Congress about two weeks ago, I think it was now, perhaps three weeks. Time does fly here. And I intend to go back also in early May. And if they want to hear an assessment at that time, I will be available to provide it then, as well.

JIM LEHRER: Senator Levin asked you a question then. To quote him, he said to you, General Petraeus, he said, "Do you agree to give your personal views when asked before this committee to do so, even if those views differ from the administration in power?" And you answered, "Yes, sir." Nothing changed?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: No, I stand by that. I think that I have been forthright. I have tried to be forthright with you, as well. I have a sacred obligation to some wonderful young men and women, not just from the United States, but from all the coalition countries, to do just that. And that's what I intend to do.

JIM LEHRER: You are aware, are you not, General, I'm sure, that your name comes up in every other sentence on both sides of every debate involving Iraq right now, General Petraeus this, the Petraeus plan. And there seems to be an indication or a consensus now that, if General Petraeus can't pull this off, nobody can, and this is the last chance for this to work.

Is that an accurate reading of how you see it, as well?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, as I mentioned at the outset, Jim, again, I'm conscious of a couple of things. One is that the Washington clock is moving more rapidly than the Baghdad clock, so we're obviously trying to speed up the Baghdad clock a bit and to produce some progress on the ground that can perhaps give hope to those in the coalition countries, in Washington, and perhaps put a little more time on the Washington clock.

I'm keenly aware, again, that we've got a pretty heavy rucksack of responsibility out here, got a lot of help in carrying that rucksack. We're doing the very best we can with what we have, and, really, that's about all that we can do, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: OK. General Petraeus, thank you very much.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: A pleasure to be with you, Jim. Thanks very much.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.