BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – The new U.S. military commander in Iraq said on Saturday the country was doomed to continuing sectarian strife if a U.S.-Iraqi offensive under way in Baghdad failed to curb the violence.
“The mission is doable…The prospects for success are good. Failing that, Iraq will be doomed to continuing violence and civil strife and surely that is a prospect all must strive to avoid,” General David Petraeus said. “The stakes are very high,” he said, speaking at a ceremony at a U.S. base near Baghdad airport where his predecessor General George Casey formally handed over command of 130,000 U.S. troops.
Petraeus takes charges at a critical time, having been appointed to oversee President George W. Bush’s new strategy in Iraq. The plan is designed to reverse U.S. fortunes in a war in which more than 3,000 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed.
Bush has promised to send 21,500 more troops, most to Baghdad, to help the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki pacify the capital and the volatile western province of Anbar, heartland of the Sunni insurgency.
Both Bush and Maliki are under growing pressure from war-weary public opinion to halt Iraq’s descent into chaos.
Americans and Iraqis want results, where similar offensive in the past failed.
Thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces have launched a crackdown in Baghdad, seen as the last chance to halt the slide towards all-out civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis. The capital is the epicentre of the violence.
Petraeus, a veteran of two Iraq tours and a counter-insurgency expert, told U.S. senators in January that the situation in Iraq was “dire” but not hopeless. He has urged that the extra American troops being sent to Iraq for the campaign to be deployed as quickly as possible. Casey had been sceptical of troop increases.
The offensive is expected to build up gradually over the coming weeks and months. Tens of thousands of Iraqi and U.S. soldiers are expected to take part.
U.S. commanders have called for patience, saying that it will be several months before the plan will deliver results. “It’s very early in the operation. We’re just in the opening days,” Lieutenant-General Douglas Lute, director of operations at the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington on Friday.
Lute said “fully-fledged” clearing operations in Baghdad neighbourhoods had not yet started.
Petraeus is seen across the U.S. political spectrum as the man best qualified to try to reverse American fortunes in Iraq. He led the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and won plaudits for working closely with local leaders to stabilise the northern city of Mosul, getting involved in everything from privatisation to local elections.
Petraeus also oversaw a new U.S. military manual on fighting insurgencies that stresses understanding politics, ethics and local culture.