The new U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, warned Thursday that U.S. troops here faced a long road ahead and left open the possibility of calling in even more soldiers as he described the difficult task of calming the country.
In a broad review of the challenges he faces, Petraeus suggested the need to be open to working with some of the groups at the center of Iraq's security struggle: He said the future of the Mahdi Army, the ubiquitous Shiite militia that has fought battles with U.S. troops, should be left up to Iraqi leaders and noted that many countries had "auxiliary police." He also suggested that political dialogue with some Sunni militants and Sunni leaders was crucial to finding a solution for problems that military action alone would never be able to fix.
Petraeus repeatedly stressed the long-term nature of the troop increase, but his assertions about the need for open-endedness in the U.S. commitment came as congressional Democrats in Washington worked toward a fixed date for withdrawal.
He said there were no "looming" requests for additional troops and that he had not yet taken a position on an assessment by the second-ranking commander in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, that the greatly enlarged U.S. force remain until February 2008.
But he added, "If you're going to achieve the kinds of effects that we probably need, it would need to be sustained certainly for some time well beyond the summer."
Military officials in Iraq have indicated that they would need a large U.S. troop presence for at least a year and likely far longer to achieve lasting stability. For now, Congress seems persuaded to give Petraeus' strategy a year to yield results, setting the summer of 2008 as a deadline for the return of all troops.
Petraeus' open-ended strategy appeared to be an effort to avoid a repeat of the pattern that has doomed past U.S. efforts to halt the insurgency. In hot spots including Tal Afar and Diyala, U.S. soldiers have cracked down on insurgents and then reduced the U.S. presence only to see insurgents retake old ground.
In his first extended public comments since taking over one month ago, the 54-year-old commander cited a handful of early favorable indicators since U.S. and Iraqi forces began sweeping through militia- and insurgent-dominated neighborhoods and building new outposts as part of a Baghdad security plan widely seen as a last-ditch effort to stave off civil war.
"While too early to discern significant trends, there have been a few encouraging signs," Petraeus said. "Sectarian killings, for example, have been lower in Baghdad over the past several weeks than in the previous month." He also said fewer families were being forced out of homes by sectarian gangs and that troops had uncovered significant illegal stashes of bombs and weapons.
But he emphasized that successes had come with devastating setbacks. "Schools, health clinics and marketplaces have all been attacked," he said. "Car bombs have targeted hundreds of innocent Iraqis," including worshipers in Habbaniya and college students in Baghdad.