101st Commander Sees ’A Lot of Reasons’ for Optimism in Iraq

February 27, 2004

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Major General David H. Petraeus, the recently returned commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), which fought its way to Baghdad and then administered northern Iraq for nearly a year, says that despite continuing terrorism, there are “a lot of reasons for optimism.” Asked if Iraqis are prepared for the scheduled June 30 transfer of sovereignty from the Coalition Provisional Authority, Petraeus says security remains a serious problem but points out that elections in northern Iraq have created functioning local governments and that the country has an abundance of resources in addition to oil. He says the human capital has great potential, “as long as you can get the folks to work together— and that is a big ’if’ sometimes.”

Petraeus was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 27, 2004.

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When did the 101st get into action in the Iraq war?

After assembling in the Kuwaiti desert in mid-March, we went through the berm, the demarcation between Kuwait and Iraq, right on the heels of the 3rd Infantry Division as it began its attack.

As your division moved north were you surprised by the disappearance of the highly touted Republican Guard?

We were not surprised that the regular army was not fighting more fiercely, in part because there were not regular army garrisons along the route we took. There was a regular army division that did a little bit of fighting to the south in the Samawa area and Nasiriya area, but not too much.

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It was expected to be all Republican Guard once [U.S. forces] got north of Najaf in the Karbala and other areas. There was a triangle that we defined as the defenses outside of Baghdad, which were probably between the 50-to-100 kilometer mark from Baghdad, depending on the terrain. This was basically tied into cities and key river crossings.

That was the expectation. The truth is that by the time we got there, the 3rd Infantry Division had [seen] some heavy fighting against the special security organizations, the Saddam Fedayeen, the Baath militia, but not the regular Republican Guard we were expecting.

The 101st did have a major fight with a Republican Guard battalion in Hilla, the biblical city of Babylon. In fact, we liberated Babylon. We then had to go into Najaf. Najaf is a city of 600,000 and, as in most of these cities, including Baghdad and Mosul and others, there aren’t many high rises and so you have to get the idea of a very large, sprawling city. That was the case throughout Iraq. So we started into Najaf. We were fairly deliberate initially because, with light infantry forces, once you are on the ground, you need to be set for whatever the enemy might bring against you.

In this case, frankly, we were finding the enemy by moving in and getting shot at.

We would have an objective and we would go for that objective, but somewhere in the course of seizing that objective, typically the enemy would take objection to that and we would get into a fight. And when we did, we wanted to have all the forces lined up literally ready to support that element in contact. And that worked, and within several days of fighting in and around Najaf, we were able to clear that city and liberate it.

What were your casualties?

We lost no soldiers in the liberation of Najaf. After Najaf, we had to go and clear Karbala, which had been bypassed by the 3rd Infantry, which went through the [Karbala] Gap on to Baghdad. Karbala is a city of 500,000 to 600,000 people. We had quite a substantial fight there. We lost one soldier in that fight.

Were you fighting the Republican Guard?

No, the Saddam Fedayeen. The guard had essentially melted away by that time. Some of them were killed by the Air Force, some by Apache helicopters. We did a deep attack into the Karbala Gap which went very well, but we found far fewer enemy than we expected. When you send two battalions of Apaches out, you typically expect you’ll come up with hundreds of targets destroyed. But we did not.

In retrospect, was that the guard’s strategy?

No. The guard was supposed to fight. They were expected to hold us off for at least three weeks. They just flat didn’t. They melted away. We picked up Republican Guard stragglers, deserters, all over the place. We thought it was something to confuse us. We couldn’t believe what was going on. In fact, they then got so jumbled and pushed around by the Iraqi high command that it was obvious the high command had lost its command and control at this time.

Were you surprised there were no chemical weapons used against you?

Yes, we were. We were prepared for it. We actually came out of our [protective] chemical suits in Najaf. Walking and fighting, in what was now becoming hot weather, there were two things that could happen to us. One, we could get killed by chemical weapons use, or, two, we could die from heat exhaustion or heat stroke. The latter was much more likely than the former, once we entered the city. The 3rd Infantry Division stayed in [chemical suits] longer, but of course they are mounted on vehicles and they were going through the Karbala Gap. That’s what we thought would be the trigger to touch off the Republican Guard to fight all out. But that turned out not to be the case. They had just disappeared.

Could you have used more nonlethal weapons?

There were times when they might have been useful. We had some nonlethal weapons. Our military police had CS tear gas, pepper stray. Over time, we got more of that kind of stuff. There is a tradeoff, though. The enemy very quickly learns the limits of what you have and is constantly pushing the limit. There were times when I felt I didn’t want them to know we had nonlethal weapons. This is the old idea of deterrence. We had a tactic of not letting the Iraqis know we had nonlethal weapons until we actually needed to use them.

How stable is Iraq now?

In the north, which I can talk about, there is obviously a host of challenges, but there are also a lot of reasons for optimism. The Iraqi security forces in the north— we trained close to 20,000 Iraqi civil defense corps units, facility protection security forces, and police. They are doing a creditable job, some doing a very good job. We felt the border police on the Syrian border, for example, are doing exceptionally well. We also bermed up 210 kilometers of the border with our bulldozers. The Iraqi governments in those areas are doing very well. Of course, the Kurdish areas already had existing governments and were quite stable. [And] there are challenges with terrorism, to be sure.

There have been terrorist attacks lately in and around Mosul, right?

Yes, but there were also the big bombings in Erbil at the Kurdish political party headquarters that killed many prominent Kurds.

Who is responsible for these terrorist attacks?

Probably Ansar al-Islam, or at the very least the attacks are facilitated by Ansar-al Islam. Most of the suicide bombers are from outside the country. In general, Iraqis are not eager to blow themselves up.

Did you capture prisoners who told you the bombers were non-Iraqis?

We picked up outsiders, certainly. In Mosul, not only did we kill Saddam Hussein’s two sons, Uday and Qusay, we also captured the No. 3 in Ansar-al Islam, a fellow named Asa Hawleri. We picked up some others from Ansar, and we killed some others. We captured one individual from outside who was a terrorist.

Why did they blow themselves up?

The extremists? For ideology. There are three groups that pose the security challenge. One is the former regime elements, who have no hope of being part of the new Iraq and don’t want the new Iraq to succeed. The second group is the criminals Saddam had let out of jail. These are convicted murderers who were let out and had shown a willingness to kill before. They have no jobs or salaries. They get paid to kill and are hired in many cases by the former regime elements, who stole a lot of money. When we killed Uday and Qusay, for example, we found $1.3 million in dollars and dinars on them. Three nights later, we picked up a Fedayeen colonel with $350,000 on him. This is big money out there. And in a world where a great salary is $100 a month, it doesn’t take much [to pay someone] to fire an RPG [rocket-propelled grenade] at Iraqi security forces or our soldiers.

The third group are the extremists. There are both home-grown extremists, some Ansar al-Islam, some just plain Islamic extremists who don’t want to see the new Iraq succeed because it threatens their conception of things. And then, there are outsiders who have come in from places including Iran, Syria, Jordan, some North African countries, Saudi Arabia, and even Turkmenistan and some others.

Why the optimism?

To begin with, the blessings of resources. Not just the obvious one of oil. There are also tremendous water resources that get tied to electric power irrigation. In our area, we irrigated 200,000 acres of land, which means phenomenal agriculture, another great resource. Sulfur is also [abundant]. And actually, the biggest reason is human capital, as long as you can get the folks to work together— and that is a big “if” sometimes. Iraqis are relatively pragmatic, educated, willing to work hard, with lots of engineers, lots of capabilities. All you needed to do is enable the Iraqis in many cases.

Will the Iraqis be able to take over on June 30?

There are a couple of different issues there. In the security area, certainly not. But in the north, where we were, although they may need help, they were doing a great deal on their own. We ran the first election in Iraq, the Nineveh province council elections that elected the governor on May 5 [2003]. [Local officials] have been in office now for almost 10 months, and they have done a great job. The governor is a good man. You have an Arab governor, a Kurdish vice governor, a Syrian-Christian assistant governor, and a Turkman assistant governor, and a province council full of doctors, lawyers, dentists, professors, engineers, an imam, a bishop, four women, and so forth.

All we needed was to enable them. Our soldiers did that magnificently. We oversaw the completion of over 5,000 projects. It is incredible. Besides the training of the security forces, more than 500 schools alone were refurbished. There were dozens of medical clinics, hundreds of kilometers of roads. The irrigation was put back into operation, lots of electrical infrastructure projects. A telecommunication infrastructure was put back into place. All the internet cafes are working. You name any segment. Mosul University, a university of 35,000 to 40,000 students— the size of a huge state university— completed the school year. It took a month longer, but we were determined to help [students and administrators] complete the school year. They wanted to do it, and we helped them.

Are the people genuinely happy to be rid of Saddam?

They are, but what you get and what we constantly wrestled with, was what we called the “man in the moon” metaphor or the “thank you but” metaphor. The man in the moon metaphor was: “Hey, you Americans could liberate us, take down Saddam who imprisoned us for 30 years, affected every family in the country, and yet you can’t give me a job and a salary tomorrow? What’s the problem?” The other was “yes, but.” We used to say that the reward for a good deed was a request for 10 more good deeds. And they have enormous expectations. You talk about the revolution of rising expectations. Their expectations are off the charts. So in some respects, they are hard to satisfy. They were liberated. Thank you very much. But when is my job and salary coming? Why isn’t the road fixed? Where are the cell phones? By the way, we have cell phones in there now. We even have private investment in northern Iraq. It is a combination of Iraqi investors backed by foreigners. It is a very business-like crowd. They are learning democracy very quickly.

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