U.S. commander: Iraqi troops developing in 'tough' environment
From Jane Arraf
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- The U.S. commander in charge of training Iraqi forces said on Saturday that progress in developing the troops has been made, but it has proven to be "an extraordinarily tough" environment for all troops -- American and Iraqi.
Army Lt. Gen. David Petraeus commands Multinational Security Transition Command Iraq -- in charge of developing Iraqi security forces -- and is stepping down from the post next month.
"I believe that Iraqis will save Iraq," he told CNN in an interview and said the United States has helped Iraqis help themselves.
"I think that over the course of the past 15 months or so there has been enormous progress in doing just that," he said.
He said Iraqis and the Americans need to work together.
"There's a great deal still to be done," he said, "and it is a long-term endeavor that will require persistence, patience and resilience because the enemy is going to do everything that he can over the next several months to derail the constitutional process and then derail the elections in mid-December."
Petraeus has said more than 110 Iraqi police and army combat battalions are "in the fight" -- a total of 178,000 trained and equipped forces -- a vast increase since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.
Pentagon officials, quoted in an August news article on the Defense Department Web site, said "this time last year, only one battalion was trained and equipped well enough to assist coalition forces."
While $2 billion has been invested in bolstering Iraqi security force infrastructure, more needs to be done, Petraeus said, such as establishing logistics and combat service capabilities and building an air force.
He repeated the recent statements from President Bush and other U.S. military officials that any U.S. troop reduction in Iraq would be based on how proficient the Iraqi forces are. He believes that over time, security force "capability and capacity" will increase.
One of the obstacles the troops face is the physical and psychological toll of attacks.
"I think that the sensational attacks have a corrosive effect," he said, particularly in Baghdad where much of the country's press is concentrated. Such "horrific attacks" would have a clear effect on "advances."
Petraeus said Iraq "is an extraordinarily tough environment" for all soldiers.
"When you have suicide vest bombers, not just suicide car bombers, this is about as difficult and as challenging an environment as you can imagine for our soldiers as well as our Iraqi police and soldiers."
He said it is hard for both Americans and Iraqis to make split decisions. One of the challenges is to get the Iraqis to learn appropriate responses -- such as when, how or whether to use firearms.
He was asked what kind of effect disbanding the army and preventing senior officers from returning had after Saddam.
He said Iraqis have done a good job bringing back many former soldiers and vetting the ranks.
"We'll let history deal with that and say we are where we are, and we need to figure out where we move forward."
He also said the government is doing its best to root out corruption, but that will take time because the culture has "thrived on a tradition of 'baksheesh' for centuries if not more."
"The new minister of defense and the new minister of interior are adamant that they want to root out corruption," he said, noting that there have been firings and charges brought against others.
Former commanding general of the 101st Airborne Division, Petraeus is to be in charge of the U.S. Army officer training.
Asked what lessons he will be taking to U.S. officers, Petraeus said tactics and procedures have been refined.
He said those who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned to understand the importance of culture.
"It is something that's good to understand for all Americans that there are people here who see the world slightly differently and still want the same things for their children and their children's children."
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