Aug. 7, 2006 -- ABC's Martha Raddatz is back in Baghdad for a week of reports, including this discussion with Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The following is a transcript of the interview, including Casey's thoughts on the potential for an Iraqi civil war and the outlook for a possible reduction of U.S. troops in the region.
Security Situation in Baghdad
Martha Raddatz: What's your assessment of Baghdad?
Gen. George Casey: The situation in Baghdad is very difficult right now. [Gen.] John [Abizaid, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East] said that. I said that. And we are working very closely with the new Iraqi government to improve the plan we had in place to bring security in Baghdad. And I think what you're seeing is the Maliki government, 75 days into its tenure with 60 days with the new minister of the interior and defense.
They're moving out aggressively both on the security front and on the reconciliation front. And there's a lot of good work going on, because both of those tracks have to go on together if there's going to be security in Baghdad.
Raddatz: [Abizaid] said it's the worst sectarian violence he's seen in Baghdad in particular.
Casey: There's no --
Raddatz: Same assessment?
Casey: There's no question. The sectarian, the levels of sectarian violence in Baghdad in the last probably six weeks are higher than they've ever been. And that's a bad thing. In the last two weeks, they have dropped off some, too early for a trend, but the six last weeks or so have been the highest levels of sectarian violence that I've seen since I've been here.
On the Recent Downturn in Violence:
Raddatz: We're 75 days into the Maliki government. But what's happened in these last six weeks? What's happened in the last year to cause this downturn?
Casey: What we saw is toward the end of June in the aftermath of Zarqawi's death, a concerted push of suicide attacks. So right at the end of June, first week or so in July, there was a big spike in suicide attacks that provoked the retaliation from the death squads. And that's what caused it to blow up during that period.
Now what's gone on over the last two years? There's been great progress over the last two years and you've been here enough where you've seen the situation ebb and flow just like it is now. We're ebbing right now. And we're going to come out of it just like we have in the other places. And if you think about how you felt, or I'll think about how I felt before Fallujah or before the elections in January. We're in a much better place than we were in both of those periods.
On Civil War
Raddatz: I think probably one of the things people may not understand is that they basically moved their operations to Baghdad. I mean, this was the center of gravity not only for you and for the people of Iraq but for terrorists, insurgents, whoever, and Zarqawi. It was what he wanted to do right?
Casey: Right. And he said it in all of his documents. And Baghdad is the center of the country. It's been the dominant center of the country for 35 years under Saddam Hussein. And I think what we're also seeing now is a bit of jockeying for position among the different sectarian groups here as we approach the provincial elections.
Raddatz: The threat of civil war, how serious is that?
Casey: As John [Abizaid] said, it certainly is possible. When you have levels of sectarian violence the way they are, it certainly is possible. That said, I think I know the Iraqis are determined not to go there. And they're determined to prevent that and they're taking, what I would say, were the appropriate actions along with us and their security forces, to ensure that doesn't happen.
Raddatz: Is that the biggest threat right now, civil war?
Casey: A countrywide, a threat of a countrywide civil war, I think that, I would say, that probably is the most significant threat right now.
Raddatz: There are a lot of people who say it's already a civil war now?
Casey: Yeah, I don't buy that. I mean, the levels of sectarian in Baghdad -- sectarian violence in Baghdad are high. There's no question about it. While Baghdad is the center of the country, it's not the country. And if you take a 30-mile radius around Baghdad and draw a circle, 90 percent of the sectarian violence is in that circle. … the rest of the country, it's not there. And so, as you've said, they're all coming to Baghdad. This is where the fight is going to be. And this is where we'll have our success.
Raddatz: Is there already civil war in Baghdad?
Casey: Again, I don't think so.
Raddatz:What is a full-blown civil war? At what point do you say it's a full-blown civil war? Everybody is saying, 'It's not a civil war yet,' but what does it take?
Casey: the definitions of civil war are almost not useful here. But if you want to look at it, it's something that's widespread around the country. It's sustained. It's intense. It's accompanied by the collapse of the government, the collapse of the security forces and we're just not close to that yet.
U.S. Forces Going Back Into Baghdad
Raddatz: You have the Iraqi security forces taking over major parts of Baghdad. Meanwhile, the violence got worse, the sectarian violence got worse. You have to bring the American forces in. What does that say about the Iraqi troops?
Casey: Yeah. It says that we're going to do what it takes to help the Iraqis win here. And the security situation in Baghdad is not what anyone wanted and they needed some more assistance and so we brought it in. The other part of it is, the reason we're able to bring those forces in without increasing the number of brigades that we have here is because we gave parts of the country back to capable Iraqi security forces and brought those other forces back here into Baghdad.
Iraqis and Intelligence Gathering
Raddatz: I heard some people say, 'Look, we wish, we wish the American forces had moved in sooner.' Is that because they don't trust them because of the militias?
Casey: It's really a mixed bag. Some people will tell you all they want to see is Iraqi security forces. Other people will tell you all they want to see is the coalition. And one of our central elements of our whole strategy here is when this struggle here over Baghdad is completed, that the Iraqi security forces emerge as the dominant security force in Baghdad and then Iraq.
The Drawdown of U.S. Troops
Raddatz: You hoped that there would be a drawdown, conditions-based, you've always said that by the end of this year. Do you think that can still happen?
Casey: It could. But it's always been conditions-based. We were moving in that direction. Conditions changed and we adjusted. The important thing is we're going to do what it takes to help the Iraqis win.
Raddatz: Are you less hopeful that it can happen by the end of the year than you were last year?
Casey: I am not less hopeful that we can continue the drawdown strategy that we began last year, before the end of this year.
Raddatz: Is it less likely that we will be drawing down by the end of the year? Is it less likely that what you said last year will happen because …
Casey: Yeah. We've certainly have delayed our, our thoughts of drawing down this year. It's been delayed. Now, it is not, it's definite that we won't draw down this year but it's probably less likely.
U.S. Strategy In Event of a Civil War
Raddatz: What do you do if it does turn into civil war?
Casey: Well, that's a hypothetical. And I will tell you that the counterinsurgency strategy that we're operating under now, a lot of those elements apply to the situation that we're dealing with right now. And again, the Baghdad situation is different than the situation in Mosul. It's different than the situation in Tikrit and in Anbar and down south. But in all those different places, you have to deny the enemy physical, religious and political sanctuary. You've got to deny them freedom of movement. You have to go after the leaders and their forces. You have to do the same kinds of [things] in a counterinsurgency that we have to do even in Baghdad now. So the troops are trained to do the things that they need to do right now. And they're doing them.
Raddatz: So when it's sectarian strife, you go about it the same way. I mean, it was hard enough figuring out who the enemy was before, right? This makes it more difficult, so, how do they do that?
Casey: What they're focused on is targeting the leaders, for example, of the groups that are the death squads, for example, al Qaeda, for example. Or the people who are putting out IEDs and putting car bombs at them. That's really immaterial to who they are. They are our targets because of what they're doing. It's absolutely a more complex environment now than it has been any time since I've been here. There's no question about it.
Raddatz: Who is the new enemy?
Casey: The new enemy is not a who, the new enemy is a what, and it's sectarian violence. Right now I think that's the greatest threat to the Iraqis' ability to build the kind of country that they want. They recognize that, their leadership is moving to address that, we're helping them, but right now it's a what and not a who.
Raddatz: Is there a plan B?
Casey: Not like Tom Friedman said there's a plan B. We continue to evaluate our strategy here because the enemy, the threat has continued to change and we evolve and adapt our strategy to deal with that. And we're continuing to do that. Right now, I have not seen anything that has caused us to make a significant shift in our approach to what we're doing here, which is to put the Iraqis in a position where they can ultimately have a representative government, security forces that can maintain domestic order and deny Iraq as a safe haven for terrorists. That's where we're going and, by the way, we're moving along pretty well.
Raddatz: If it turned into a civil war, and I know you hate these hypotheticals, but this is also a debate back home. If it turns into a civil war, should the American troops leave?
Casey: If it does, if it does, if it does. … We need to be here to help the Iraqis resolve what really is the fundamental conflict in Iraq right now and that is the division of political and economic power among the Iraqis. They're going to do that, they're in the process of doing it. They built this unity government over 18 months. This new government has been 75 days at it. They know where they need to go. And I think you've been around to know, the one thing Iraqis know is they're not going back to 35 years of Saddam Hussein. And so while they're still wrestling through hard issues and they don't really trust each other yet, that's looming behind them. And it's the thing that keeps them moving forward.
Raddatz: I know it's a what if, what if, but do you let them know, 'Look, if this gets really bad, we can't stay here forever.' I mean, do you, I remember you telling Peter Jennings a long time ago that at some point you have to take the training wheels off. At one point do you say, if this really deteriorates, we really can't …
Casey: That's a political judgment, and our job here is to help them be successful, to help them win and that's what we're doing.
Raddatz: What's the idea here with the plan in Baghdad with the Stryker Brigade?
Casey: We've had a Baghdad security plan really going on since March, and we've continued to adapt it as things have changed, but we were not satisfied with the impact that we were having on the levels of sectarian violence. There were a lot of good things happening under the old plan, but we weren't addressing the levels of sectarian kidnappings and murders. And so we, with the Iraqis, worked through a different variation where -- and I won't get into the specifics of it -- but we will focus on the key areas in the city where there is dividing lines between the different groups, go into those areas, clean them out, establish Iraqi security forces, bring in some economic support and basically work with the local leaders so that they are confident in their security forces and we hold that area and make them feel safe in their own neighborhood. Then we'll gradually expand those areas around the country, around the city.
Raddatz: And when you say dividing lines, is it between neighborhoods, is it between Sunni and Shiite, are you separating people are you …
Casey: No, we're not separating people, but there are friction points, and there are neighborhoods where the Sunni and Shiite populations in the city come together. They're mixed neighborhoods and those are the areas where the levels of violence, the sectarian violence, have been the highest. And that's where we're starting. Do those first and then gradually expand out.
Effect of Conflict Between Israel, Hezbollah
Raddatz: The effect of what's happening in Lebanon and Israel on this, do you worry about that?
Casey: We watch it very closely and there's no question that there can be spill over here. There was a relatively small demonstration, 14,000-15,000 people last weekend against it. We've not seen any major impact of that here yet, but we're watching it very carefully.
Raddatz: What happens if that starts expanding? Iran is clearly a concern anyway, right?
Casey: Right. Again hypotheticals and hypotheses, Iran could try to influence what's going on in Lebanon by turning up the heat here. We're watching that closely.
Raddatz: Final sort of thoughts here of how long you've been here, what you've seen, whether you would have done anything differently, whether you would've adjusted things? What's your lesson learned so far?
Casey: It's hard to say. You don't really find out the big mistakes you've made for about two years or so after you've made them because if you knew, you wouldn't do them. It's still a little too fresh, but what I've seen is, is steady progress by the Iraqis and I've learned to have pretty good confidence in their ability to move this thing forward at their own pace and they're a smart group, they're a capable group and again they have this 35 years of living under Saddam Hussein that they know they don't want to go back to. So, they can do this, with our help.