Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Progress is fragile, says new American commander in Iraq

David Petraeus, the US general responsible for the Iraqi troop surge, was praised yesterday for helping to defeat the Sunni insurgency as his successor warned that recent improvements in security were "fragile and reversible".

Petraeus is being replaced by his deputy, General Ray Odierno, who cautioned against taking progress for granted. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, said the two generals had formed an "incredible team" during the deployment of 30,000 extra US troops to Iraq last year - George Bush's so-called surge.

"Progress remains fragile and caution should be the order of the day," Gates said at a formal handover ceremony on a US military base in one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

"Iraq is now a different country from the one I had seen first," said Odierno. "However, we must realise that these gains are fragile and reversible."

Odierno's troops captured Saddam in December 2003 and the general was criticised for using heavy-handed tactics in Tikrit, the former dictator's home town. Earlier this year, Gates called him "one of the most effective military leaders of his generation".

Petraeus has been posted to Tampa, Florida, to command all US forces in the Middle East - from the Horn of Africa to central Asia. He will still deal with Iraq as well as an expanding US military effort in Afghanistan, an al-Qaida revival in neighbouring Pakistan, and the looming confrontation over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Petraeus, who is often described as the most influential US general since William Westmoreland of the Vietnam-era, took command of 140,000 US troops in Iraq in early 2007 when suicide bombings and sectarian attacks took the country to the brink of civil war. He worked closely with the US ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, performing an impressive double act in congressional testimony last year.

Violence in Iraq has fallen to a four-year low, something analysts have attributed to his innovative counterinsurgency strategies. But insurgents are still capable of devastating attacks. On Monday, a female suicide bomber blew herself up among a group of police officers north-east of Baghdad, killing 22 people. Hours earlier, car bombs in the capital killed 13 people.

Petraeus argued against sharp cuts in troop levels in Iraq. Baghdad is negotiating a security deal with Washington to determine how many troops will remain after the UN mandate expires at the end of the year. The Baghdad government now handles security in 11 of its 18 provinces, with plans to take over two more by December.

Earlier this month, Bush announced a withdrawal of 8,000 US combat troops by February, although that would still leave his successor with about 140,000 troops, roughly the same as the pre-surge levels of last February. It will be Odierno's mission to set the stage for eventual US withdrawal. But any decision on a pullout would be left to the next US president.

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