BAGHDAD, Iraq â€” The new top U.S. commander in Iraq said Saturday that the stakes are high but the situation is “not hopeless” as American and Iraqi forces move to end the sectarian violence threatening to tear apart the country.
Gen. David Petraeus made the comments at a ceremony during which he officially took control of U.S. forces in Iraq from Gen. George Casey, who is going to be the next Army chief of staff.
“The stakes are high. The way ahead will be hard but it is not hopeless,” he said on a platform at a former Saddam Hussein palace at Camp Victory. “We can and we must prevail. This mission is doable.”
The change in command comes as President Bush overhauls his Iraqi policies and his team of top U.S. officials in the Middle East despite strong opposition by Democrats to plans to send 21,500 more troops to beef up security in Iraq.
Petraeus said the U.S. and the Iraqis needed to continue to work together in controlling the violence.
“The rucksack is too heavy for any one person to bear. We will all shoulder it here together,” he said, adding that he wants to help the Iraqis “make the most of this opportunity to build a new country.”
Petraeus was joined by Casey, Army Gen. John Abizaid, the outgoing Central Command chief, and a chaplain for the handover ceremony, which was held at a former Saddam Hussein palace at Camp Victory on the western edge of Baghdad. A U.S. Army band with the 1st Cavalry Division from Fort Hood, Texas, played the U.S. and Iraqi national anthems before the presentation of the flags.
Casey expressed confidence the Iraqis would be ready to take control of their own security by the end of this year, although he acknowledged progress was slower in Baghdad than the rest of the country.
“It’s no secret that the sectarian violence has changed what Iraqis must face on the ground every day. But when Iraqis want something to happen, it happens,” he told reporters before the ceremony.
He said his biggest fear for the Iraqis was that they would not be able to put the past behind them.
“We liberated them from tyranny but we can’t liberate them from prejudices,” he said.
Casey said he feels “a little numb” about leaving.
“But I go away with great pride because we’ve laid the foundation here,” he added. Everything’s not as I would have liked or would have wanted it to be.”
Casey said he was not ready to discuss mistakes that may have been made during his two and a half years of service in Iraq, but he offered a hint of regret.
“The main point people will debate is whether I relied too much on Iraqi forces rather than American forces,” he said, stressing he wasn’t agreeing with them, “but that’s a point people will debate.”
The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie also attended the ceremony, although Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was absent.
Abizaid, who is being replaced as the head of Middle East operations by Navy Adm. William Fallon, thanked Casey for his service and said he was leaving his post in good hands.
“No soldier is more prepared for this mission than Gen. Petraeus,” he said.
He also warned the Iraqis that they needed to end the violence between Shiites and Sunnis that has been increasing since the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra nearly a year ago.
“No nation can allow sectarian agendas to define their future,” he said. “You are changing the world. Keep your eyes on the promise of a better future.”