BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The new U.S. commander in Iraq said on Thursday military force would not end violence unless talks were held with some militant groups and warned of more “sensational attacks” during the current crackdown in Baghdad.
General David Petraeus, at his first news conference since he took command last month, also said he saw no immediate need for more U.S. troops, but reinforcements already requested would likely stay “well beyond the summer”.
“There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq,” Petraeus said.
“Military action is necessary to help improve security ... but it is not sufficient.”
Political progress would require talking with “some of those who have felt the new Iraq did not have a place for them”.
He said a key challenge for the Shi’ite-led government of Nuri al-Maliki was to identify those militant groups who were “reconcilable” and to bring them into the political process.
Groups such as al Qaeda were intensifying their attacks to provoke more of the sectarian violence that has threatened to plunge the country into all-out civil war, he said.
Petraeus said the U.S.-backed Iraqi security crackdown in Baghdad had produced “a few encouraging signs” but warned of more bomb attacks of the kind that had killed more than 200 people in the last three days, including many Shi’ite pilgrims in the holy city of Kerbala.
More U.S. troops would be sent to areas outside the capital, where militant groups were regrouping.
Petraeus urged Maliki to pursue political reconciliation and said the U.S. military mission was to fight alongside Iraqi forces to “control the demons who have torn at the very fabric of Iraqi society”.
On Wednesday U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved the general’s request for an extra 2,200 military police to support the Baghdad push, seen as the last chance to avert civil war.
Petraeus, a counter-insurgency expert appointed to oversee President George W. Bush’s new strategy in a war that has claimed the lives of 3,188 U.S. soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, said he had discussed with his second in command on Thursday whether he had enough troops.
“Right now we do not see other requests (for troops) looming out there. That’s not to say that some emerging mission or emerging task will not require that, and if it does then we will ask for that,” Petraeus told reporters.
Bush is sending 21,500 more troops, mostly to Baghdad. Petraeus said the five additional combat brigades requested would not be deployed until June.
Asked about reports the additional 21,500 troops would need to stay in Iraq until early 2008, he said:
“I’ve certainly not reached a conclusion yet about that,” But to achieve the desired effect, they would probably have to remain until “some time well beyond the summer.”
Since the Baghdad plan was launched in mid-February, the number of bodies found shot and dumped around the capital has fallen from around 40 to 50 a day to single digits on some days.
Suspected Sunni Arab insurgents, however, have targeted Shi’ite pilgrims flocking to Kerbala in bloodshed that has worsened sectarian tensions.
Additional reporting by Claudia Parsons, Mariam Karouny, Mussab Al-Khairalla