WASHINGTON—Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said Thursday that the surge of U.S. and Iraqi troops into Baghdad hadn't reduced overall violence in the country and that the situation was "exceedingly complex."
The newly named commander echoed the warnings of those who'd preceded him, saying things could get worse before they get better. He spoke of threats emanating from Syria and Iran but said that al-Qaida, which has taken responsibility for a spate of car bombings, was "probably public enemy number one."
Petraeus' sober assessment made clear that while he thinks he's making progress, Iraq is a long way from stability and will require a long-term commitment from the United States.
"The level of violence has generally been unchanged" since the troop buildup began Feb. 15, Petraeus said at the Pentagon. Throughout the country, "there was a dip for a while. It was coming down and (then there were) these sensational attacks of the past couple of weeks."
The four-star general's comments came in the midst of a showdown between President Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress over war funding. Despite Petraeus' presence at the White House and on Capitol Hill this week, the Senate voted 51-46 Thursday to continue funding provided that U.S. troops begin withdrawing from Iraq on Oct. 1. The House of Representatives passed a similar bill Wednesday. Bush has vowed to veto any legislation that contains a withdrawal timetable.
Throughout the "surge," Petraeus has used the number of bodies dumped on Baghdad's streets as a measure of the plan's success. For well over a year, armed Sunni and Shiite Muslim groups have been killing residents of the other sect in a tit-for-tat battle in Baghdad's neighborhoods. Although those killings have declined in recent weeks, the number of car bombings has remained steady, McClatchy reported Wednesday.
Petraeus blamed the car bombings on al-Qaida, and other top U.S. officials speak of an orchestrated effort to reignite sectarian tensions. Excluding car bombings, sectarian murders have dropped by two-thirds, Petraeus said Thursday.
In his blunt assessment, the general said the situation was "the most complex and challenging I have ever seen." But he said the buildup of troops was an opportunity that Iraq's political leadership could exploit to take control of the country.
Petraeus said the U.S. military had recovered evidence that groups supported by the Quds branch of Iran's revolutionary guards were responsible for an attack Jan. 20 in Karbala that killed five American service members. Despite that, he said there was no evidence of a direct link to Iran's government. He also said that foreign fighters continued arriving in Iraq via Syria.
Petraeus has asked for five more brigades to be deployed around Baghdad by mid-June. They'd be stationed in neighborhoods in an effort to regain control of the capital. To sustain that, the Pentagon announced earlier this month that U.S. soldiers now will serve 15-month rotations in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of 12. Many troops are already on their third tours.
Despite what many say is a strain on an already overstretched Army, the U.S. effort "clearly is going to require enormous commitment, and commitment over time," the general said. He added that there could be an increase in the deaths of U.S. service members.
Petraeus said that top U.S. officials in Iraq, including Ambassador Ryan Crocker, would re-evaluate their strategy in September. He said they probably would measure success by evaluating four areas: security, economics, politics and governance, and the rule of law.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.