BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Al Qaeda remains a dangerous force in Iraq despite a general decline in violence and U.S. troops must continue to confront the militant group, the outgoing top U.S. general in the country said.
General David Petraeus told al Arabiya television he believed recent success in reducing violence had restored the United States’ image with Iraqis. Troops initially greeted as liberators but later viewed as occupiers were now again accepted as friends.
In the interview recorded on Monday and scheduled for broadcast later on Friday, Petraeus was asked whether al Qaeda had been defeated in Iraq.
“You will not find any military leader who will say this ... all we can say is al Qaeda is still dangerous,” he said.
Petraeus’ comments were translated into English from an Arabic transcript of the interview sent to Reuters.
“It is certain more of these crimes will be committed, and we must continue working to confront these attacks,” he said.
Petraeus and his former deputy and designated successor Lieutenant-General Raymond Odierno are together credited with implementing a military strategy that helped reduce violence in Iraq, which slid towards sectarian civil war after the bombing of a revered mosque in early 2006.
Pentagon sources said this week that Petraeus had recommended the United States move slowly to draw down troops in Iraq, removing one combat brigade early next year.
A combat brigade consists of 3,000 to 5,000 troops.
“There are many missions that have not been achieved ... Any person who replaces me and who is honest with himself must admit these facts,” Petraeus said.
Violence in Iraq has fallen to four-year lows, and the future of the more than 140,000 U.S. troops in the country is a key issue of November’s U.S. presidential elections.
A U.N. mandate for the U.S. military presence in Iraq expires on December 31, focusing attention on when the troops will leave and what their mission will be until that occurs.
After Iraq, Petraeus will become commander of the military headquarters responsible for U.S. operations across the Middle East, including Iraq and Afghanistan.
U.S. and Iraqi officials say al Qaeda, which once held vast swathes of Iraq in its grip, has been seriously depleted. An Iraqi military crackdown is underway in the northern provinces of Diyala and Nineveh to mop up remaining insurgents.
However, disputes between Arabs and Kurds for control of northern towns and cities ahead of provincial elections scheduled for the end of the year could trigger more violence.
The polls could also spark a bloody struggle for power among Shi’ite groups in the south.
Petraeus said that successes achieved to date in combating al Qaeda and Shi’ite militias had eased the U.S. military’s position in Iraq.
“We have lived with the Iraqis for a long time, and it was a relationship ... that started with us considered as liberators, but soon changed to invaders or occupiers,” Petraeus said.
“Things came back on track and we became liberators from the point of view of our Iraqi colleagues, because we took part in ridding them of the grip of al Qaeda, Sunni extremists and Shi’ite militias.”
(Additional reporting by Jason Benham in Dubai)
Writing by Mohammed Abbas