The top American commander in Iraq said Wednesday he was preparing recommendations on troop cuts before he returns to Washington next month for a report to Congress, and believes the U.S. footprint in Iraq will have to be "a good bit smaller" by next summer.
But he cautioned against a quick or significant U.S. withdrawal that could surrender "the gains we have fought so hard to achieve."
Gen. David Petraeus said the "horrific and indiscriminate attacks" against the Yazidis, an ancient religious sect, in northwestern Iraq Tuesday night were the work of Al Qaeda in Iraq. That would bolster his argument, he said, against too quickly drawing down the 30,000 additional U.S. troops deployed in the first half of the year.
The general issued his comments to a small group of reporters who accompanied him to the headquarters of a group of former Sunni insurgents who are now working with American and Iraqi forces against Al Qaeda in western Baghdad's Amariyah neighborhood.
Petraeus listened intently as the so-called Freedom Fighters' 40-year-old leader, who uses the nom-de-guerre Abu Abed, explained his transformation and said he switched sides because Al Qaeda was ravaging the neighborhood and trying to impose its austere version of Islam.
Members of the neighborhood volunteer army milled about, U.S.-supplied pistols strapped to their hips and AK-47 automatic rifles at the ready. Petraeus reviewed a short line of the auxiliary force and shook hands with each man.
Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, who unexpectedly accompanied Petraeus, promised Abed that the neighborhood — now that it was calmer — would receive priority government attention for its crumbling infrastructure.
Petraeus asked Abed if he would do an interview with an Iraqi television crew that had joined the tour and tell Sunnis who fled the district to return to their homes because it was now safer. The diminutive Abed agreed and promised his protection to returnees.
Petraeus, who wrote the Army's book on counterinsurgency, said he and his staff were "trying to do the battlefield geometry right now" as he prepared his troop-level recommendations.
"We know that the surge has to come to an end, there's no question about that. I think everyone understands that by about a year or so from now we've got to be a good bit smaller than we are right now.
"The question is how do you do that ... so that you can retain the gains we have fought so hard to achieve and so you can keep going. Again we are not at all satisfied where we are right now. We have made some progress but again there's still a lot of hard work to be done against the different extremist elements that do threaten the new Iraq."
Petraeus said the shift in loyalty among many Sunni insurgents in Iraq's western Anbar province, Baghdad's Amariyah district and a similar hotspot in the city called Ghazaliyah was "a pretty big deal."
"You have to pinch yourself a little to make sure that is real because that is a very significant development in this kind of operation in counterinsurgency," he said. "It's all about the local people. When all the sudden the local people are on the side of the new Iraq instead of on the side of the insurgents or even Al Qaeda, that's a very significant change."