BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi and U.S. forces now control virtually all of Iraq and Baghdad’s troops might be able to take on security responsibility for the whole country by the end of 2009, the top U.S. general in Iraq said on Monday.
General David Petraeus told Reuters in an interview that progress in Iraq in the past year had been “very dramatic” but suicide bombers would still slip through security nets.
Four suicide bombers including three women killed 50 people in Baghdad and the northern city of Kirkuk on Monday, Iraqi police said. Petraeus was speaking before the full extent of those attacks were known.
“I think it’s accurate to say that Iraqi and coalition forces control the vast majority of the country,” Petraeus said.
“That is of course a major change from even just a year ago,” he added, saying chunks of territory were in the hands of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda in late 2006.
Even a few months ago parts of Baghdad and sections of some southern Iraqi cities were controlled by Shi’ite militias.
Petraeus will make recommendations to Washington in September on whether more U.S. troops can leave Iraq after the last of five additional combat brigades sent to help drag the country back from civil war departed this month.
He said the drawdown had not had any adverse impact on security, comments that suggest he will be able to recommend more cuts to a force that numbers around 147,000 soldiers.
“We need a few more weeks to see what the situation is in the wake of the reduction of the final brigade combat team,” Petraeus said.
There was still work to be done in tackling al Qaeda in parts of northern Iraq, he said.
“There are clearly areas in which al Qaeda or other extremist elements have what you might call small sanctuaries. They are not areas that they necessarily control, but they are areas in which they have some freedom of movement.”
FOREIGN FIGHTERS REDUCED
Petraeus said security had been helped by a sharp reduction in the number of foreign fighters entering Iraq, to as low as 20 a month from around a 100 each month a year ago.
The general took over as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq in February 2007, when sectarian violence was hitting a peak. In the month he assumed command there were 42 car bombings in Baghdad alone causing what he called “horrific casualties”.
As violence falls and Iraqi forces lead more operations, the confidence of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government has grown in its ability to secure the country, more than five years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Iraq hoped to have security control of the entire country by the year-end, Maliki’s national security adviser said recently.
Ten of Iraq’s 18 provinces are under Iraqi security control and Petraeus said a conservative projection was for at least two more to be transferred this year from multinational forces.
He said this number did not include Anbar, once the heart of the Sunni Arab insurgency, but where a local political row has delayed a handover that had been expected last month.
Asked if he envisaged all provinces being under Iraqi control by the end of 2009 including Baghdad, Petraeus said: “It is certainly in the realm of the possible. We have been cautious but if conditions permit obviously we would support that.”
Petraeus met last week with Barack Obama when the Democratic presidential candidate visited Baghdad. Obama has pledged to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office if he wins the November election.
Asked about Obama setting a timetable to remove U.S. combat forces, Petraeus said:
“We did not actually discuss a timetable per se … it’s well known that I believe that my recommendations should be based on conditions and assessments,” he said.
With the so-called “surge” of U.S. forces in Iraq having just ended, Petraeus acknowledged how concerned he was at times.
“Certainly you do have moments where if you are honest with yourself in something as difficult as this has been, you occasionally wonder if it will be achievable,” he said.
“But we are in a very different place now than from where we were a year, a year and a half ago.”