BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq has pulled back from the brink of civil war, but recent security gains are fragile and still reversible, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said on Saturday.
In an end-of-year briefing for journalists in Baghdad, Petraeus said he viewed Sunni Arab al Qaeda as the main enemy in Iraq because it aims to reignite sectarian violence.
He also described progress by Iraq’s neighbors, saying attacks using Iranian weapons had declined, and praising Syria and Saudi Arabia for curbing the flow of foreign fighters.
Assessing the overall security situation in Iraq, Petraeus said progress toward curbing sectarian violence was “tenuous in many areas and could be reversed”.
The challenge in 2008, the war’s sixth year, would be to build on security gains and help Iraq restore services, create jobs and speed progress on national reconciliation.
This would be done while U.S. forces went ahead with the planned withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by mid-year. U.S. forces would not withdraw entirely from areas but “thin out” their presence and gradually hand control to Iraqi forces.
“Success will emerge slowly and fitfully with reverses as well as advances. Inevitably there will be tough fighting, more tough days and more tough weeks, but fewer of them, inshallah (God willing),” Petraeus said.
He attributed the drop in violence, which he said had pushed Iraq to “the brink of civil war”, to a U.S. troop buildup, Sunni Arab tribes turning against al Qaeda, and a ceasefire declared by anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Petraeus said violence had dropped by 60 percent from June, with an average now of 40-45 attacks a day. The number of civilian deaths was down by 75 percent from a year ago.
Figures supplied at the news conference, however, showed that the number of suicide car bomb and suicide vest attacks is starting to creep up again after reaching a low in October.
Two suicide bomb attacks on U.S.-backed neighborhood patrols killed at least 33 people in the northern city of Baiji and in the city of Baquba on Christmas Day. Ten people were killed in a car bomb blast in central Baghdad on Friday.
Petraeus said most attacks were carried out by al Qaeda in northern Iraq, where U.S. commanders say it is regrouping after being pushed out of Baghdad and western Anbar province.
“We regard al Qaeda as the most significant enemy that Iraq faces precisely because it is the enemy that carries out the most horrific attacks ... and seems most intent on reigniting ethno-sectarian violence,” he said.
He said al Qaeda had turned to “mafia-style” rackets to finance its operations after a drop in foreign funding, and had developed interests in real estate, car dealerships, cement and banking. Shi’ite militias were involved in similar rackets.
Petraeus said some countries in the region had clamped down on financiers, made it more difficult for fighters to enter Iraq and “discouraged young men from pursuing extremist activities”.
“There have been some very significant actions in the past couple of months, in particular in neighboring countries and the Gulf. Syria has taken action to reduce the flow of fighters through its territory into Iraq,” he said.
Petraeus said he hoped Iranian leaders would live up to a promise to Iraq’s government to stop training, arming and directing Shi’ite militias, practices Iran denies.
He said there had been a drop in the number of attacks involving Iranian-made weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades, lethal bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), large caliber rockets and anti-aircraft weapons.