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Cautious words from David Petraeus, McCain’s man for a more robust Iraq policy

Arizona Sen. John McCain, a vocal critic of President Barack Obama’s Middle East policy, has called on the White House to bring retired Gen. David Petraeus back into government to lead a more vigorous approach to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

The Republican senator might regret getting what he wishes.

Petraeus came to prominence a decade ago as the architect of the U.S. surge in Iraq, which was widely credited with helping to quell the sectarian bloodshed that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. He is now cautioning against the use of air strikes against the Islamic militants who have seized large chunks of the country.

“This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shiite militias, or a Shiite on Sunni Arab fight,” the general said Wednesday during an appearance at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty in London.

“If America is to support them it would be in support of a government against extremists rather than one side of what could be a sectarian civil war,” said Petraeus, as quoted by The Daily Beast website. “It has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists, who happen to be Sunni Arabs, but extremists that are wreaking havoc on a country.”

Petraeus’ comments come as the Obama administration deliberates on how to counter the recent gains by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has taken over numerous Iraqi cities and is moving toward Baghdad. The group’s aim is to form a Caliphate in both Iraq and Syria.

Critics of the White House, including McCain, say Obama should move fast with air strikes against the militants. The senator recently said that Obama should fire his entire national security team and rehire Petraeus.

Petraeus, however, spoke on Wednesday with great caution about conducting air strikes, warning that such action could undermine U.S. strategic interests.

In the future, the U.S. should be careful not to be seen as picking sides between Sunni and Shiite and focus instead on efforts aimed at pressuring the Iraqi government to bringing the minority Sunni population into the fold, Petraeus said. So far, that is something Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has failed to accomplish.

“If there is to be support for Iraq it has to be support for a government of Iraq that is a government of all the people, that is representative of and responsive to all elements of Iraq,” Petraeus said.

During the Iraq war, the tide began to turn in 2007, when Sunnis, long disenfranchised with Shiite political leaders, also indicated their rejection of Islamic militants. The so-called Anbar awakening, in which Sunnis took up arms against al-Qaida in Iraq, coupled with a surge in U.S. military presence, brought relative calm to the war-ravaged country.  But a long-term political reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite has proven elusive.

“The surge in Iraq, the surge that mattered most was not the surge in forces; it was the surge of ideas that changed our strategy,” Petraeus said. “You cannot have 18 to 20 percent of the population feeling disenfranchised; feeling that it has no stake in the success of the country, in fact it has a stake in the failure of Iraq. Of course we reached out to the Sunni Arabs.”

vandiver.john@stripes.com

 

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