"I think everybody recognizes that there has been progress in the security arena over the course of the last six to eight months," but no one, Gen. David Petraeus said, is celebrating.
"The progress in Iraq is fragile, it is tenuous. There's an enormous amount of hard work to be done to solidify the gains, to build on them, while there is a draw-down of over one quarter of our combat forces."
Five of 20 Brigade Combat Teams - a Marine Expeditionary Unit and two Marine battalions - are scheduled to leave by July. Already, two Army brigades have departed Iraq, one based in Diyala province, the other in Baghdad.
The withdrawals are a test.
"They always leave some gap... that has to be filled. Obviously, we have to thin out in certain areas to accommodate that withdrawal," Petraeus said, referring to the recent departure of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division. At the same time, "al Qaeda remains a very lethal enemy... capable of lashing out at any given time."
The battle against al Qaeda in Iraq is focusing primarily on Ninevah province, north of Baghdad, which Petraeus calls "hugely important" because of its location at the cross roads of Turkey, Syria and Iran, and an important trade route to Baghdad. He admits there has been "an economy of force" in the north because of the security operations in the Iraqi capital.
Petraeus has moved additional American and Iraqi conventional and Special Forces to Ninevah. Four Iraqi battalions, sent to Baghdad for the security operations, are now returning to Mosul, Ninevah's capital. Combat outposts, like those established in Baghdad during the surge, are being built.
"Everyone, I think, sees Mosul as a very significant location for al Qaeda." A large city, he says it is a greater challenge than towns like Ramadi in Anbar province, or Baquoba in Diyala province. While admitting it may be an over-statement, he quotes intelligence analysts as saying "al Qaeda can't win without Baghdad, or survive without Mosul".
"This is not the final battle by any means, but it is a very important battle in the overall campaign against al Qaeda in Iraq," Petraeus said. "Mosul is certainly an area where we have to focus more attention, and we have."
On the Sons of Iraq, the former predominantly Sunni insurgents now allied with, and paid by, U.S. forces in the battle against al Qaeda, Petraeus admits there have been some problems. The government in Baghdad is hesitant to admit them into the security forces.
"There are understandable concerns on the part of a government that is majority Shiite that, what they were doing was hiring former Sunni insurgents, giving them a new lease on life, and that when this is all said and done they may turn against the government or the Shiite population."
Al Qaeda has also infiltrated some of these groups. "Absolutely. This is a technique that they are using. We have caught them at that. Our Iraqi partners have caught them at it and obviously we've got an eye out for that all the time. It is a serious threat and a serious concern. And again, it is a reason that some of the members of the government of Iraq have some pause about integrating into Iraqi security forces these Sons of Iraq without sufficient checks and background examinations," he said.
Still, he adds, several thousand of these men have already been placed within the Iraqi security forces or into other employment, and thousands of additional names are before a reconciliation committee in Baghdad to be vetted by intelligence agencies.
As for his upcoming testimony before Congress in April, Petraeus said, "We haven't decided yet what the final recommendation will be. We'll consider the same factors that we've always considered when looking at whether we could withdraw forces, and that includes the level of violence, the state of the enemy in particular areas" and the growth and capability of Iraqi security forces.
"At the end of the day, it probably comes down a little bit to the feel of people who... have been here for some time."
By Cami McCormick