MOSUL, Iraq, June 26, 2008 — -- Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, sounds very upbeat these days about the future of Iraq.
"The last time I left here was in 2004," Hertling said this week, "and I remember standing on the roof of Baghdad airport, and a bunch of us were talking and having a cigar and saying, 'We want this more than they do, and that's scary,'" he told ABC News. "That's not the case at all anymore. The primary word in Iraq right now is hope. They want this."
Hertling said al Qaeda has been defeated in his area of operations. "Defeat means they're not capable of major offensive operations," he said. "We don't think al Qaeda has that anymore. All the cities that we have in the northern part of Iraq, I think have been secured."
He compared the situation to one of the key turning points in the American Civil War.
"We're literally in the post-Gettysburg phase of this," he said. "We have defeated them in the city. They have dispersed to the desert, now we are pursuing them out into their safe havens: small villages and towns."
The Iraqi army launched major operations in the northern city of Mosul last month, targeting Sunni insurgent groups. Hertling praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's role in the crackdown.
"He very rapidly took control of both the strategic and operational guidance to both his military and civilian commanders, and I was impressed," he said.
The offensive in Mosul, Iraq's second most-populated city, followed successful military operations in Basra and the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad.
"The people who had at one time opposed Maliki suddenly said, 'Hey, this guy's getting it done," Hertling said. "So I think he's turned a lot of the Iraqi people."
The fight in Mosul was an Iraqi-led operation, backed by U.S. forces. "Iraqi security forces are growing in capability, Iraqis are stepping forward," Hertling said.
Gen. Riyadh Tawfeeq is the Iraqi commander in charge of the city.
His previous job was operations commander for eastern Baghdad during the troop surge in Baghdad in 2007. He told ABC News that he shares Hertling's optimism.
A fan of Westerns, Tawfeeq likens himself to the sheriff character that triumphs in the end. "In those movies the sheriff faced opposition from outlaws who didn't want the law to prevail, but eventually the sheriff wins because he has noble principles."
The western and predominantly Sunni Arab part of Mosul lies badly damaged after five years of conflict. As city mayor Zuhair Abdul Aziz toured the destroyed buildings and empty streets recently, he nevertheless insisted in an interview with ABC News that "We are optimistic that life will return even better than before."
Taxi driver Mohammed Suleiman Hussein echoed that upbeat assessment. "Nowadays, the people of Mosul are optimistic," he said. "The situation is improving."
But Hertling is mindful that al Qaeda and other extremist groups could make a comeback, describing them as "a very resilient organization. That's what scares me about them. You can never say they're destroyed, because as soon as you're feeling comfortable about this organization, they will do something barbaric and horrific again someplace where you think you're safe."
Deadly attacks on civilians and U.S. and Iraqi troops continue to blight Mosul and its surrounding province, even if the level of violence is much reduced.
In addition, American officers in northern Iraq highlight continuing problems such as crime, lack of electricity and a worsening drought that goes back three years.
Along with counterinsurgency operations, those officers are also in charge of reconstruction assistance across 47,000 square miles of territory, an area about the size of the state of Georgia.
Hertling believes the economy is now the priority for Iraqis. "Six months ago when I walked through a market, they would say we need better security," he said. "They're not saying that anymore. They have the security. Now what they're saying is we need better jobs, assistance with micro loans."
The final part of the jigsaw is political reconciliation. Hertling said that this ultimately means an "understanding that no longer can you get your way with a gun."
He believes that some insurgents have grown tired of fighting. "A group came into one of our cities in Balad about a week ago and turned in their weapons, and said we can't get power by the gun, we've got to get power [through] ... the upcoming election. That's a huge shift, very important.
"They've got to work through some challenges for sure, but when you talk to the people on the street they want to be a patriotic nation. They want to be a people who love their country. They want to have success, and they know how rich this country is. It's a matter of time now. They've got the power, they've got the love of country and now they have the hope."