Video: Petraeus: Mission in Iraq to be modified

updated 1/23/2007 11:42:37 PM ET 2007-01-24T04:42:37

The Army general nominated to carry out President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq urged patience Tuesday and predicted “tough days” ahead.

“None of this will be rapid,” Lt. Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee at the start of a hearing. “The way ahead will be neither quick nor easy.”

Many in Congress, including some Republicans, oppose Bush’s plan, which would send an extra 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq as part of a revised strategy for quelling sectarian violence in Baghdad and stabilizing the country. Before the build up began in recent days there were 132,000 U.S. troops there.

Bush nominated Petraeus to replace Army Gen. George Casey as the senior American commander in Iraq. Petraeus is considered a shoo-in to win Senate confirmation as commander of Multinational Forces-Iraq, but senators used his appearance Tuesday before the Senate panel to grill him on how Bush’s new strategy would work.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the committee and a leading critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, pressed Petraeus on whether the flow of additional U.S. troops could be halted in midstream if the Iraqi government failed to meet its commitment to provide thousands more Iraqi troops.

“It could,” Petraeus replied. Earlier he said there were no “specific conditions” the Iraqis must meet in order to keep the flow of U.S. forces moving. The last of five additional U.S. brigades are scheduled to arrive in the Iraqi capital in May; the first got there just days ago.

Petraeus said that in the event the Iraqis did not meet their commitments, he would consult with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on how to respond.

'Hard is not hopeless'
In his opening statement, Petraeus, 54, painted a grim picture of conditions in Iraq.

“The situation in Iraq is dire,” he said. “The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard. ... But hard is not hopeless.”

Petraeus is a former division commander and was once the head of the Iraqi training mission. Devoted early in the war to trying to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, Petraeus later wrote the Pentagon manual on how to tackle insurgencies. He also previously supported expanding U.S. forces in the region.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of Bush’s troop buildup plan, asked Petraeus how long he thought the U.S. build up could be sustained.

“I am keenly aware of the strain” on the Army and Marine Corps, Petraeus said, adding that he welcomes Bush’s proposal to increase the size of the land forces over the coming five years.

McCain, Kennedy question
Asked by McCain how soon he thought he would know whether the new strategy was working, Petraeus said, “We would have indicators at the least during the late summer.” As currently planned, he said, the last of the five additional U.S. Army brigades would be ready to fight in Baghdad by the end of May.

Several committee members noted that Petraeus recently oversaw the writing of a new Army manual on how to counter an insurgency. Sen. Edward Kennedy asked him why an extra 21,500 would make a significant difference.

Video: Attack plan? Petraeus replied that the important factor was how extra troops are used, not their numbers. Their main focus, he said, will be on securing the civilian population of the capital rather than killing insurgents.

Kennedy, D-Mass., asked how long the extra troops would remain in Iraq.

“I don’t know what the time limitation is,” Petraeus replied, adding that it would be reasonable to give the Iraqi government more time to gain its political footing and to make the tough decisions needed to quell sectarian violence.

Casey said last week that the new U.S. troops might be able to begin leaving as early as late summer.

'Strategic benchmarks'
Sen. John Warner of Virginia and two other Republicans on Monday announced legislation denouncing the increase, as House leadership drafted what they called “strategic benchmarks” for the war.

Critics of the plan contend ground commanders have not been clamoring for more troops.

“How much louder — and how much clearer — does the opposition to his plan need to be before the president will begin to listen and respond to the voices of the American people, the generals and a bipartisan majority of Congress?” Kennedy said a day before Bush was scheduled to give his annual State of the Union address.

Warner, a former Navy secretary and defense hawk who chaired the panel until this year, is likely to provide political cover for members wary of the war plan but reluctant to embarrass a GOP president. His resolution — backed by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Norm Coleman, R-Minn., and Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — would say the Senate disagrees with the plan to augment U.S. forces and that the president should consider options that would achieve “strategic goals” with fewer troops than 21,500.

“I feel ever so strongly that the American GI was not trained, not sent over — certainly not by resolution of this institution — to be placed in the middle of a fight between the Sunni and the Shiite and the wanton, incomprehensible killing that’s going on at this time,” Warner told reporters Monday.

The resolution is similar to one offered last week by Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Carl Levin, D-Mich. Biden is running for president, and Hagel is a potential 2008 candidate.

Congress deeply split
Since Bush announced his plan on Jan. 10, Congress has been deeply split on how to react. Senate and House Democratic leaders back the resolution drafted by Hagel, Levin and Biden. That measure will likely be voted on by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday and sent to the floor, where GOP leaders have vowed a filibuster.

While the various measures have varying amounts of support, none carries the weight of a law that would bar the president, as commander in chief, from deploying military personnel as he sees fit.

Warner said he believed his plan would offer broader appeal among Republicans than Hagel’s proposal. While largely similar, Warner’s measure leaves open the possibility of Bush sending small numbers of troops to certain areas, such as Anbar province, and avoids terms some say are partisan.

“It’s a stronger message when it has significant bipartisan support. ... This resolution will really, I think, be a very strong message to the White House,” Nelson said.

But not every member is willing to sign on.

“It declares General Petraeus’ new strategy a failure before it has a chance to be implemented,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said he has told the president “that the support is still strong among Republicans but there are a lot of our members who are skeptical that the plan will work” because of doubts that the Iraqi government will follow through on its commitments.

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