BAGHDAD — Nearly five years into the war in Iraq, the top commanding general here said Saturday that security gains and a gradual hand-off to Iraqis will allow a drawdown of U.S. forces in 2008.
But the security improvements that brought violence down to 2005 levels are fragile and reversible, Gen. David Petraeus said during a press briefing. They depend on a complicated equation of troop concentrations, citizen security forces, cooperation from Iraq's neighboring countries and relative quiet from militias such as the Shiite Mahdi Army.
U.S. forces will thin out through the year, rather than abruptly handing control to Iraqis. First Iraqi politicians must work out "fundamental" governance issues, Petraeus said, and continue expanding the Iraqi security forces. The country's police and army added about 100,000 members this year and benefited from a 70,000-member, Sunni-majority U.S.-funded Concerned Local Citizens groups. Before the movement spread nationally, it helped to stabilize Anbar province, known as an al Qaida hotbed until recently.
It's unrealistic for U.S. forces to wait for car bombs and suicide vests to disappear before beginning to wind down, he said.
"The question is 'Are they reducing in number and effectiveness over time?'" he said. "I think the answer to that has been yes."
Extremist militias could pose a long-term threat to the country, Petraeus said, but the most significant enemy for now is al Qaida.
"It is the enemy that carries out the most horrific attacks, that causes the greatest damage to infrastructure and that seems most intent on reigniting ethno-sectarian violence," Petraeus said.
Al Qaida carries out the majority of attacks here, he said, and they're strongest in the country's northern regions. He blamed the group for Dec. 25 suicide bombings at a funeral in Baquba and a citizen checkpoint in Baiji. At least 29 people were killed and 100 wounded during those attacks.
Statistics provided during Petraeus' briefing showed dramatic drops in the number of explosions and Iraqi civilian deaths over the course of the year, with slight increases in the last few months. This year will have been the deadliest for U.S. forces since the invasion began in 2003, but December is on track to have some of the lowest monthly numbers of American deaths.
As fresh military units cycle into the country next year, Petraeus said they'll use "graduate-level warfare" that combines force, education, public relations, politics and economics to pinch terrorist operations. Deploying troops should be prepared for unconventional Gangs of New York-style work, as al Qaida becomes a Mafia-like organization that strong-arms its way into profitable Iraqi businesses to fund itself.
Fighters and dollars from other countries, such as Iran, are tougher for the terrorist organization to come by, Petraeus said. Dates for more talks between Iraq, Iran and the United States are expected in early 2008, U.S. Embassy officials have said.
"Success will not be akin to flipping on a light switch," Petraeus said. "Rather, it will emerge slowly and fitfully, with reverses as well as advances."
(Gumbrecht reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.)