Saturday, February 10, 2007

Army Gen. David Petraeus takes command of U.S. forces in Iraq

New U.S. commander in Iraq says 'barbarians' must be defeated
By Tina Susman, Times Staff Writer
9:09 AM PST, February 10, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Army Gen. David Petraeus took command of U.S. forces in Iraq today with a sober assessment of the job he faces and a warning that Iraq will be doomed if "barbarians" fueling violence across the country are not defeated.

As Petraeus took over the reigns from Gen. George Casey, who is leaving to become the new Army chief of staff, new reports of U.S. and Iraqi deaths illustrated the challenges cited by both men during the handover ceremony. U.S. military officials announced that at least three American troops had died in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, when a blast went off in a building they were scouring for weapons. In Baghdad, two car bombs went off, killing at least seven civilians.

The U.S. deaths brought to 36 the number of American troops killed in the first 10 days of February, representing one of the highest daily death rates since the war's start in March 2003. A brief military statement said in addition to the three killed, four soldiers from Task Force Lightning were killed in the Diyala incident, which occurred Friday.

U.S. and Iraqi forces mounted an offensive last month in Diyala, which hugs the Iranian border northeast of Baghdad. The military says it is a hotbed of Sunni Muslim extremists with ties to Al Qaeda. The leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. air strike in June in Diyala, a region so notorious for insurgent attacks that Iraqi forces have refused to venture into much of it without U.S. backing.

At least 3,121 U.S. troops have died since the invasion of Iraq, according to the web site, which tracks civilian and military casualties in the war.

In comments made before he handed control to Petraeus, Casey said no obvious mistakes on his part sprang to mind.

"It might seem a little trite, but for me, it's too close in time to judge the mistakes, because if I thought I was making a mistake I would have changed it," said Casey, speaking to journalists before the ceremony.

Instead, Casey said he went away "with a great feeling of pride, because I really feel we've laid the foundation for Iraq's success."

Casey predicted that Iraqi forces would be ready to take control of the country's security by the end of summer or early fall, a seemingly optimistic view given what appears to be the sluggish start to a much-vaunted, U.S.-Iraqi security plan aimed at bringing violence under control. The plan was announced in January and is to put an additional 21,500 U.S. troops, as well as thousands more Iraqi soldiers and national police, in Baghdad and in Al Anbar province.

So far, only 3,000 more Americans and 2,000 Iraqis have been put in place, a schedule that U.S. military officials say is on target at least for the Americans. They have said all the new U.S. troops should be in place by May.

Petraeus appeared to take a more tempered note in his first comments as commander, calling the situation he had inherited "extremely challenging."

"However, hard is not hopeless," he said in speech to coalition forces and Iraqi and U.S. political leaders. "The prospects for success are good. Failing that, Iraq will be doomed to continuing violence and civil strife."

There was no letup in that strife as the handover unfolded in the mosaic and marble rotunda of one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces.

In Baghdad's mainly Shiite Karrada neighborhood, a suicide bomber parked his car near a bakery and crowded market shortly after noon. The explosion killed at least four civilians and injured 10, Iraqi police said. In Kamaliya, another mainly Shiite district in eastern Baghdad, a car bomb tore through a street lined with auto parts and repair shops, killing at least three civilians and injuring six.

A 15-year-old girl died in a cross-fire between rival groups in a street battle typical of Baghdad's neighborhoods. Across Baghdad, at least six other people were found dead, apparent victims of sectarian violence.

Twenty-four additional bodies were reported in the area around Kut, south of Baghdad. In Mussayib, also to the south of Baghdad, mortars slammed into civilian homes overnight, killing two women and a man, and a man died when a roadside bomb exploded.

Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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