WASHINGTON — Despite President Bush's pledge Thursday that U.S. troops will remain in Iraq after he leaves office, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David Petraeus, said Friday that he will still use the prospect of troop withdrawals to persuade Iraq's political leaders to resolve their differences.
In a half-hour interview Friday with McClatchy Newspapers at the Pentagon, Petraeus said the message that he and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will take back to Baghdad is: "Let's get on with it (or) you are going to have to take it on by yourself."
Iraq's leaders know the drawdown is going to happen, Petraeus said.
He said that Bush's assertion in his nationally televised speech that "ordinary life is beginning to return" to Baghdad "is "probably true in a number of areas." He cited three neighborhoods, Adhamiyah, Kadhemiya and Ghazaliyah, as success stories.
"It still needs to return in others," he added.
Petraeus spoke to McClatchy minutes after visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. It was one of the final acts of what had been a momentous visit to Washington that began with two days of testimony before Congress and culminated with Bush saying that he was endorsing Petraeus' proposal for drawing down troops in Iraq.
Petraeus said that he and Crocker will tell Sunni leaders, "Let's help you represent your constituents," with coalition forces working on the most important issues to them, such as freeing Sunni prisoners detained at U.S. facilities.
The Shiites, who now dominate the government and have often operated along sectarian lines, will be encouraged to represent all Iraqis, Petraeus said.
The general expressed discomfort with his growing public persona and with the fact that some now see him as a political figure who's become the face of the Bush administration's Iraq policy.
"I am not entirely comfortable, candidly, with sort of being in this particular situation," Petraeus said. "I've actually tried to stay somewhat apolitical. ...I guess it's sort of evitable to end up in this position."
He said he's tried to be honest about what he believes the situation to be in Iraq, and while some have doubted his claims that violence has dropped, he said he only wanted to tell the public what the surge forces were doing.
"I have honestly tried to just lay out the situation and to explain where we were in December 2006, what led to the surge, what we've done with the additional soldiers, where we have made progress, where we haven't made progress, where we have had setbacks as well as progress...and then how we hope to take this forward," he said.
"We are not trying to mislead, I assure you that."
But Petraeus also acknowledged that his claim that Baghdad's security forces have 445,000 people on the payroll may have exaggerated the size of the force.
"Thousands are sitting in the ministries themselves. They are not cops on the beat," he said. "Some are phantom, without question. And we're trying to help them identify those. Some are casualties, because they keep those on the payrolls because it's difficult. Some are retirees, and the administrative process of getting people only on retirees payrolls (is) very challenging.
"But at the end of the day, it's grown enormously," he said.