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Petraeus Tells RFE/RL That Recent Gitmo, Interrogation Moves Will 'Help'

U.S. General David Petraeus took command of U.S. Central Command in October 2008.
PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- The head of U.S. Central Command, General David Petraeus, has told RFE/RL he thinks that "on balance" the expected closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and abandonment of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques will "help" U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the struggle against transnational extremist violence.

In an exclusive interview in Prague that will be published in its entirety later today, Petraeus also talks about U.S. strategies in Afghanistan and the need to keep civilian casualties there "to an absolute minimum."

Petraeus says that closing Guantanamo "in a responsible manner...sends an important message to the world, as does the commitment of the United States to observe the Geneva Convention when it comes to the treatment of detainees."

In one of his earliest actions of his presidency, Barack Obama in January ordered the closure of the Guantanamo detention center within one year. The U.S. president last week said use of the internationally maligned facility "has weakened American national security" and become "a rallying cry for our enemies."

"I have long been on record as having testified and also in helping write doctrine for interrogation techniques that are completely in line with the Geneva Convention," Petraeus says.

The specifics of closing Guantanamo are proving contentious, including questions over how to prosecute and where to incarcerate some of the roughly 240 remaining detainees.

Republicans and some Democrats have since chafed at a Guantanamo shutdown, with Democrats last week blocking funding to close the facility until there is a specific plan with guarantees that detainees would not end up in U.S. prisons.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen said on ABC's "This Week" on May 24 that he welcomes Guantanamo's closure and military officials are working to meet Obama's 12-month deadline, according to AP. Mullen added, however, that detainees include "some really bad people."

Iraq And Geneva

Petraeus, a former commander of multinational forces in Iraq, also comments on the U.S. military's detention practices there, where well-documented abuse at Abu Ghraib proved a major setback for the U.S. war effort.

Petraeus tells RFE/RL that "as a division commander in Iraq in the early days, we put out guidance very early on to make sure that our soldiers, in fact, knew that we needed to stay within those [Geneva Convention] guidelines."

Several U.S. soldiers have been prosecuted for their actions in Iraq, while questions remain over the role of civilians and the intelligence community in the treatment of detainees.

Afghan Effort

In Afghanistan, where Obama has ordered a troop increase as well as broader measures to help stabilize the region, Petraeus cited the need to cut off funding to militant extremists and said the Afghan government must "do a better job in terms of achieving the support of its own people to be seen as legitimate and serving those people."

But he conceded that coalition air strikes that kill innocent Afghan civilians are a "problem," adding that "it is very, very difficult in some cases because the Taliban has been shown to use civilians almost as human shields or at least to provoke firing into areas where there are civilians."

Locals have claimed that nearly 150 noncombatants were killed in two recent incidents, in Farah and Helmand provinces, although U.S. and NATO sources cited a lower figure.

"We won't debate the numbers," Petraeus told RFE/RL. "What we need to do is figure out how to move forward and how to avoid such cases and to keep them to an absolute minimum in the future."

Interview was conducted by RFE/RL Central News Director Jay Tolson; written by Andy Heil