BAGHDAD – Gen. David Petraeus, outgoing commander of the Multi-National Force in Iraq, thinks improving conditions — specifically, a significant drop in Baghdad violence — make it possible that American combat troops will leave the capital by next summer.
In interviews with the Australian and Financial Times, Petraeus indicated that the war-torn country finally is "spiraling upwards" toward normal conditions.
Asked whether that meant U.S. combat troops could leave Baghdad by July, he said: "Conditions permitting, yeah," the FT reported.
Military officials say that in the 20 months since President Bush authorized the "troop surge" in Iraq, the number of attacks have plummeted.
"Obviously there has been enormous progress," Petraeus told the Australian. "We have gone from a situation where 14-15 months ago there were 180 attacks a day in Iraq. Now there are on average about 25 attacks a day."
He told the FT, "The number of attacks in Baghdad lately has been, gosh, I think it’s probably less than five [a day] on average, and that’s a city of 7 million people."
Petraeus' optimistic assessment came as the United States and Iraq continue to negotiate the final timetable for U.S. combat troops to leave Iraqi cities by next summer and withdraw from the country by the end of 2011.
American combat forces already have withdrawn from 13 of Iraq's 18 provinces, Petraeus said.
Petraeus leaves his post this month to become head of Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, southern Africa and central Asia, including operations in Afghanistan. He also is scheduled to give President Bush his final recommendations on the deployment of American forces in Iraq.
Pointing to the increased ability of Iraqi security forces and the army to successfully carry out joint military operations, Petraeus cited Monday’s handover to Iraqi forces of the formerly violence-torn province of Anbar as evidence that Iraq had gained the upper hand in containing sectarian violence.
"It is encouraging to look at the metrics," he told the Australian. "It is heartening. It gives Iraq new hope, if you will.
"A country that was on the verge of civil war is now an increasingly important contributor to the global economy and to the community of nations."
Asked whether Iraq had finally turned the corner, Petraeus told The Australian: "We have to be very wary about premature declarations. I would not offer that assessment at this point. I don't think you will find any commanders on the ground who will offer such an assessment or use phrases such as 'light at the end of the tunnel.'
"I think if anything we have learned in Iraq it is wise to be cautious in assessments and to recognize that there are always surprises lurking around every corner."