The US commander in Iraq Gen David Petraeus expressed long-term interest in running for the US presidency when he was stationed in Baghdad three years ago according to a senior Iraqi official who knew him at that time.
Sabah Khadim, then a senior adviser and spokesman at the Iraqi Interior Ministry, says that Gen Petraeus discussed with him his long term ambition to be president when the general was head of training and recruitment of the Iraqi army in 2004-5.
“I asked him if he was planning to run in 2008 and he said ‘no, that would be too soon,” said Mr Khadim who now lives in London.
Gen Petraeus has a reputation in the US army for being a man of great ambition. If he succeeds in reversing America’s apparent failure in Iraq he would be a natural candidate for the White House in the presidential election in 2012 or beyond.
His able defence of the ‘surge’ in US troop numbers in Iraq as a success before Congress this week has made Gen Petraeus the best known active soldier in America, An articulate, intelligent and energetic man he has always shown skill in managing the media and impressing politicians.
But Gen Petraeus’ open interest in the presidency expressed during his previous job in Iraq may lead critics to suggest that his own political ambitions have influenced him in putting an optimistic gloss on the US military position in Iraq.
Mr Khadim, a long term opponent of Saddam Hussein, was a senior adviser in the Iraqi Interior Ministry in 2004-5 when Iyad Allawi was prime minister of Iraq.
“My office was in the Adnan Palace in the Green Zone which was close to Gen Petraeus’ office,” recalls Mr Khadim which meant that they met frequently. In addition he had meetings with Gen Petraeus because the Interior Ministry was involved in vetting the loyalty of Iraqis recruited as officers into the new Iraqi army. Mr Khadim was critical of the general’s choice of Iraqis to work with him.
For a soldier whose military abilities and experience are so lauded by the White House Gen Petraeus has had a surprisingly controversial career during the war in Iraq. His critics hold him at least partly responsible for three important debacles: The capture of Mosul by the insurgents in 2004, the failure to train an effective Iraqi army and the theft of the entire Iraqi arms procurement budget in 2004-5.
Gen Petraeus came to Iraq during the invasion of 2003 as commander of the 20,000-strong 101st Airborne Division and had not previously seen combat. He first became prominent when the 101st was based in Mosul, a largely Sunni Arab city in northern Iraq, where he pursued a more conciliatory policy toward former Baathists and Iraqi army officers than was US policy in Baghdad.
His efforts were deemed successful and were highly publicized in US newspapers and on television at the time. When the 101st departed in February 2004 it had lost only 60 dead in combat and accidents. Gen Petraeus had build up the local police force by recruiting, to the anger of the Kurds in Mosul, officers who had previously worked for Saddam Hussein’s security apparatus.
Although Mosul remained quiet for some months after Gen Petraeus left the US suffered one of its worse setbacks of the war in November 2004 when insurgents captured most of the city. The 7,000 police trained and recruited by Gen Petraeus changed sides or went home, 30 police stations were captured by the anti-US resistance, 11,000 assault rifles were lost and $41 million worth of military equipment disappeared. Iraqi army units also abandoned their bases.
The debacle in Mosul was little noticed because the American media was absorbed by the storming of Fallujah west of Baghdad by the US Marines which happened at the same time.
Gen Petraeus’ next job was to oversee the training and equipment of a new Iraqi army to replace the one dissolved by the occupation authorities a year earlier. As head of the Multinational Security Transition Command, commonly called ‘Minsticky’, Gen Petraeus claimed that his efforts were proving highly successful. In an op-ed in the Washington Post in September, 2004 he wrote: “Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions are being re-established.” This optimism turned out be highly misleading; three years later the Iraqi army is notoriously ineffective and corrupt.
It was while Gen Petraeus was in charge of the Security Transition Command that it failed to notice that the entire Iraqi procurement budget of $1.2 billion had been stolen. “It is possibly one of the largest thefts in history,” said the Iraqi Finance Minister Ali Allawi. “Huge amounts of money have disappeared. In return we got nothing but scraps of metal.”
In Gen Petraeus’ defense it could be said that he had tried to keep his distance from the Iraqi authorities and allow them to make their own decisions. It is surprising, however, that he and his officers did not notice that the Iraqi soldiers he was training often had inferior weapons to the insurgents because of the disappearance of the procurement budget.
Mr Khadim is sceptical that the ‘surge’ is working, arguing that what Gen Petraeus is trying to do now is very similar to what he sought to do in 2004. Commenting on the US military alliance with the Sunni tribes in Anbar he says: “they will take your money, but when the money runs out they will change sides again.” Overall he says that Gen Petraeus and other US commanders do not take on board that most Iraqis feel they have been occupied and will never be loyal to the occupying power.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.