The insurgency the US faces in Iraq is the "most complex" Gen. David Petraeus has ever seen, the commander of the Multi-National Forces-Iraq told a press conference at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Petraeus acknowledged a recent spike in spectacular car bombings, but reaffirmed that the recent surge of troops into Baghdad had reduced sectarian violence there by a third.
That reduction in sectarian killings seems to be the main achievement of the Baghdad security plan, with Petraeus citing US and Iraqi success at rolling up extrajudicial killing, or EJK, cells, as the main reason for the decline.
When a reporter asked what might happen if a date was enforced for the redeployment of US troops--such as is currently under debate in Congress--Petreaus cited a reversal of this recent progress as the most significant consequence of that type of proposed transition of mission.
The violence in Iraq is "exceedingly complex and very tough" Petraeus said, and the US goal is to create a space safe for the Iraqis to make political progress. "Success in the end will depend on Iraqi actions," he said, later adding that the US could provide Iraqis with the opportunity to take political steps, "but they must exploit it."
Petraeus also responded to questions about Iranian and Syrian involvement in Iraq, decribing a complex tangle of involvements with fuzzy details around the edges.
The General explained how much had been learned regarding the Iranian role by the capture in late March of seven members of the "Khazali network."
The Khazalis have been accused of involvement in the brazen attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, and the kidnapping and murder of five American soldiers in Karbala in January.
Since their capture, the Khazalis have apparently admitted under interrogation that they trained on Iranian soil, and also received funding, weapons, ammunition, and other forms of assistance.
Petreaus stressed that he had no knowledge if the top ranks of the Iranian government had awareness of or directed these activities, adding that the highest ranking official he had confirmed involvement is a Qods Force Commander Sulaiyman.
The General also revealed that when the Khazali network was seized in late March, a search of one of their computer hard drives uncovered a 22-page memorandum detailing the planning and execution of the operation in which they kidnapped and eventually executed five US soldiers in Karbala in January. The military's assumption, he added, was that the document may have been prepared to show the Iranians how professionally and effectively they operated. There was no indication, he clarified, that the document had actually been an Iranian planning memo for execution by Iraqi proxies.
While focusing a great deal of attention on possible Iranian involvement in driving extremist activities, Petreaus carefully delineated between the kinds of activities of the Shi'ite, Sadr-affilited Khazalis, who focus the bulk of their attacks on US forces, and the al Qaeda-affiliated foreigners, the majority of whom, he said, perpetrate the "spectacular" attacks, usually car bombs or suicide attacks with civilian or otherwise very public targets. Those groups, he said, rely on an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist network to assist their transportation to the battlefield, usually crossing the border into Iraq through Syria.
Though reluctant to give any specific numbers, Petreaus roughly estimated that "dozens" of foreign fighters cross into Iraq from Syria every month. Later in the press conference, when confirming that there was no evidence of any Iranian involvement in the "spectacular" bombings attacks, Petraeus said of the bombers in those incidents: "80-90% of those are foreigners coming in through Syria."
Petraeus also repeated his intent to return to Congress in "early September" to offer his assessment on the surge, making absolutely clear "that's a commitment" he has made with Ambassador Ryan Crocker. By that point, the full contingent of additional troops he has requested will have been in theater for almost three months, since he expects the final surge supplemental to arrive by mid-June.
Though Petraeus made the disclaimer that things "may get worse before they get better," his outlook at the moment was decidedly upbeat and his outlook for the future optimistic.