Gen. Petraeus on Hot Seat at AP Annual Meeting in NYC

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By: Greg Mitchell

U.S. Army General David H. Petraeus told the Associated Press annual meeting today, via satellite from Baghdad, that the “surge” campaign he is leading in Iraq “is likely to get harder before it gets better. … We are putting our soldiers at greater risk.” He said it was far too early to declare it a success and for now only cited “some progress” in “some areas.” On two occasions he referred to “some” Iraqi units truly pulling their weight.

But he sidestepped a key question from an AP reporter in New York who asked what it would take for him to advise President Bush, at a promised early September meeting, that it was time to start to get out of Iraq. Petraeus replied to that in general terms and said he did not want to “speculate,” which might leave the news gathering with a “big headline” or land him in a “political minefield.” He also hinted that the U.S. could “modify the objectives.”

Surprisingly, the questioning by two AP representatives in New York did not touch on the plight of the news service’s photographer, Bilal Hussein, who has now been held in Iraq by the U.S. military without facing charges. The AP’s CEO, Tom Curley, who introduced Petraeus, has made this a high-priority concern.

Petraeus stood at a lectern in Baghdad wearing combat fatigures. The satellite link went down for five minutes at the outset and then briefly again from time to time as the hour-long session continued.

Asked about a poll showing that 68% of Iraqis want us out of that country, Petraeus said his forces have to combat “rumors” because “our motives are pure.”

Asked about a new military study which showed increasing mental problems among U.S. personnel — and an alarming spillover into admitted ill treatment of noncombatants — Petraeus replied, “When I received that survey I was very concerned by the results. It showed a willingness of a fair number to not report the wrongdoing by their buddies.” But he asserted that it showed that only a “small number” admitted they may have “mistreated detainees.”

Actually, the study found that 10% percent of U.S. forces reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians. More than 40% said they backed torture in certain circumstances.

Petraeus said he had instructed his forces that they can “never sink to the level of our enemy.” He claimed that there was “nothing nefarious going on” in interrogations and in fact they were “humane.”

Asked about deployments in Iraq being extended from 12 to 15 months, he said, “There’s nothing easy about three extra months” but called it “a good move.”

Petraeus in his talk emphasized al-Qaeda’s attacks in Iraq, even though they make up a small minority of the overall anti-U.S. actions.

Addressing the media’s role in Iraq, Petraeus said, “You should be highly proud of your reporters … many are first?rate. … They, too, are patriots.” But he also noted that they need to fulfill three goals to be fair to the soldiers and the “mosaic” of what is going on there: Be accurate, put things in “proper context,” and make “appropriate characterizations.”

He said he has ordered his command to be “more open” with the press ever since the “surge” started. “We are happy to show off our soldiers, even when they complain.” He closed his remarks with a passionate plea for all to recognize the sacrifice being made by troops in Iraq.

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Related E&P story: AP’s Curley Explains Not Asking Gen. Petraeus About Detained Photog

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