The Job Ahead: 'They're Not Going Back'

Gen. George Casey has been in charge of U.S. and Coalition forces in Iraq since June 2004. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Scott Johnson before and after Election Day on hopes and concerns for the country's future. Excerpts:

CASEY: It's unbelievable. It's been the courage of the Iraqis and the commitment and the professionalism of the U.S. military.

The process is on track. [The Iraqis] have met every one of their engagements, and they've done it at great risk to themselves. We as Americans can't appreciate what it was like to live under Saddam Hussein for three and a half decades. They know there's something better; they know they want something better, and they know they're not going back. And that commitment, in my mind, is one of the things propelling this process forward.

In a couple of places, like Baghdad--the Green Zone--or downtown Basra, there are still forces in the city center, but by and large our bases are on the outsides of cities, except in places where if we left, we would just be turning them over to the insurgents. If we left Ramadi today, it would be Fallujah in 60 days. We'd have to fight our way back in. [The Iraqi forces] acknowledge they are not strong enough to throw the foreign fighters out. The minister of Defense is from Ramadi, and he has said they can't do it... It's the capital of Anbar province, and I believe Al Qaeda is trying to build a safe haven in Anbar from which they can export terror to Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. You know the geography.

We purposely set [level one] as a high standard because the Iraqi security forces have to be able to sustain success after we leave. And we set that standard knowing full well it was going to be a couple of years before they got it. The important level for us right now is level two, the level where Iraqis can take the lead with our help. And there's one Iraqi division, four brigades and 33 battalions that are in the lead today.

We have a very specific readiness reporting system. It's similar to the one we do on ourselves. We look at people, we look at equipment, we look at training. They tell us once a month where they are on this stuff. Then there's a 30-day transition process where they do a "left-seat, right-seat" ride, and they take over a piece of ground.

I can see getting to that point in a couple of years, but we're nowhere near that point right now.

If the election produces a government that is perceived as being representative, broadly, of all ethnic and sectarian groups, then that will affect our ability to draw down at a more rapid pace... It's all about perception.

The violence will be a lagging indicator of what's going on here. You win insurgencies when people make the choice to accept the process of going forward. What you're seeing here are Iraqis making choices.

The president is engaged on this. We talk once every couple of weeks on videoconferencing. It's not just him: there are other people there and they ask questions. There are usually two or three things he wants to put on the table.

[ Laughing ] No.