WASHINGTON – The top U.S. commander in Iraq revealed Thursday that he quietly visited several Middle East countries as part of diplomatic efforts to slow the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.
Gen. David Petraeus' foray into a broader role of regional diplomacy will not be his last. President Bush has directed Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker to stop in Saudi Arabia on their trip back to Iraq and encourage leaders to reopen their embassy in Baghdad and increase their overall support for the war-torn country.
• Photo Essay: Gen. Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker deliver new Iraq report
Petraeus said Thursday that a number of U.S. military and intelligence officials have traveled to several countries, including some identified as sources of foreign fighters who routinely cross the borders into Iraq.
"I've actually gone to a couple of neighboring countries in an effort, again, to get at the networks, the countries in which they operate, and the sources of some of these foreign fighters," Petraeus said.
Petraeus did not name the countries he visited. The Associated Press has learned that the trips — all taken since last September — were to Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
• Gen. Petraeus' Testimony (.pdf)
• Ambassador Crocker's Senate Armed Services Committee Testimony (.pdf)
• Ambassador Crocker's Senate Foreign Relations Committee Testimony (.pdf)
• Testimony Handout Packet (.pdf)
Washington has complained repeatedly that Iran and Syria have not done enough to prevent foreign fighters from crossing their borders into Iraq.
The larger diplomatic role underscores what military leaders have been saying for months — that progress in Iraq hinges not just on a military solution but on diplomatic, economic and political gains. And officials are increasingly complaining that neighboring Arab countries are not stepping up to support the struggling Iraqi nation.
"A stable, successful, independent Iraq is in the strategic interest of Arab nations," Bush said Thursday. "And all who want peace in the Middle East should support a stable, democratic Iraq."
What was unclear, however, was whether Petraeus' diplomatic reach provides a glimpse into his future assignment.
There has been much internal speculation about who will be named as the next Middle East commander. Navy Adm. William Fallon stepped down last month as head of U.S. Central Command, and he was replaced temporarily by Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Bush has not nominated a permanent replacement for Fallon, but Petraeus is often mentioned as a candidate.
In related remarks Thursday, Petraeus and Crocker said the recent Iraqi military's clash with Shiite militias in Basra highlighted the depth of the Iranian involvement in training, equipping and even directing the extremist groups.
Crocker said Iran's interference has helped rally support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki across Iraq. Crocker warned, "What we're looking at here are some clear limits on how far the Iranians can press in Iraq before they get a significant backlash from the Iraqis themselves."
Crocker said the U.S. is prepared to sit down in formal talks with the Iranians and the Iraqis. When that happens, he said, "we're certainly going to point out what we know of what they're doing to undermine Iraqi security, and make the very strong point that they need to bring their actions into conformance with their policy."