WASHINGTON — The top U.S. general in Iraq outlined plans Monday for the withdrawal of 30,000 troops by next summer, drawing praise from the White House but a chilly reception from anti-war Democrats.
Gen. David Petraeus said a 2,000-member Marine unit would return home this month without replacement in the first sizable cut since a 2003 U.S-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein and unleashed sectarian violence.
Further “force reductions will continue,” he told a nationally televised congressional hearing that was frequently interrupted by anti-war protesters.
Petraeus said it would be “premature to make recommendations on the pace,” and he recommended that President Bush wait until March 2008 to make any decisions.
The cuts he outlined would return the U.S. force to levels in place when Bush ordered a buildup last winter to allow the Iraqi government time to forge a reconciliation among feuding factions.
Pivotal Iraq war moment
Petraeus slid into the witness chair at a politically pivotal moment in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 U.S. troops in more than four years. The Pentagon reported nine deaths on Monday.
The president invited congressional leaders to a meeting Tuesday at the White House, and is expected to make a nationwide speech on the war in the next few days. White House press secretary Tony Snow said Bush will place a lot of weight on his general’s recommendations.
Snow said Bush “liked what he heard last week” when he was briefed on Petraeus’ plans. “But he is commander in chief and it will be up to him to make final determinations about what he will recommend,” the spokesman noted.
Inside the crowded congressional hearing room, Rep. Tom Lantos, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Petraeus his proposal amounted to only a “token withdrawal” after years of war.
“What I recommended was a very substantial withdrawal,” the general replied evenly from the witness chair, his uniform adorned by four gleaming general’s stars and nine rows of medals. “Five Army brigade combat teams, a Marine Expeditionary Unit and two Marine battalions represent a very significant force.”
'2007 has brought improvement'
Petraeus referred only obliquely to political difficulties in Iraq, saying, “Lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust and various forms of corruption add to Iraq’s challenges.”
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As for the much-maligned Iraqi military, he said it is slowly gaining competence and gradually “taking on more responsibility for their security.”
Petraeus didn’t say so, but Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the day’s only other witness, strongly suggested that the administration’s troop buildup had prevented a debacle.
Crocker said 2006 was a “bad year for Iraq. The country came close to unraveling politically, economically and in security terms. 2007 has brought improvement.”
Petraeus is both the architect and the commander of last winter’s change in strategy, and private Republican polls show him with greater public credibility that the president.
Majority Democrats returned from a summer vacation determined to call for a troop withdrawal deadline, and the administration has been laboring to prevent wholesale Republican defections.
In long-awaited testimony, the commanding general of the war said last winter’s buildup in U.S. troops had met its military objectives “in large measure.”
As a result, “I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level ... by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve.”
Outside the hearing room, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said he hoped Petraeus’ testimony could lead to a bipartisan consensus.
That seemed unlikely.
“This is simply unacceptable,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a written statement. Inside the hearing, Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler of Florida told Petraeus that despite his assessment, most independent experts say Bush’s so-called surge in troop strength has failed.
Criticized in advance by some opponents of the war, the general went out of his way to proclaim his independence. “I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress,” he said.
Petraeus said the withdrawal of the Marine unit would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers.
After that, another four brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008, he said. That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq.
Petraeus conceded that improvements in security in Iraq were uneven across the country.
Using 13 pages of colorful charts, he said, “The level of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June of 2006.”
Ticking off some of the gains, he said, “We have disrupted Shia militia extremists, capturing the head and numerous other leaders of the Iranian-supported Special Groups, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative supporting Iran’s activities in Iraq.”
U.S. and Iraqi forces had dealt “significant blows to al-Qaida-Iraq,” he said, although he conceded that the terrorist organization remains dangerous.
Extent of progress debated
Despite Petraeus’ generally optimistic report, the extent of any improvement has been a matter of debate.
The Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency, recently reported that Iraq has partially achieved only four of 18 political and military goals.
Additionally, a formal National Intelligence Estimate by the administration this summer said the Iraqi government is strained by rampant violence and deep sectarian differences.
Bush and his political allies have worked forcefully in recent weeks to shore up Republican support. The effort has included television advertisements and a presidential visit to Anbar province to highlight improved security in the vast western stretches of Iraq.
Bush also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the hours before Petraeus spoke.
Despite the administration’s efforts, fresh polls reflected significant public opposition to the war.
An AP-Ipsos survey found that only 36 percent of those questioned believe the troop increase has helped stabilize Iraq. That was up only marginally from 32 percent in February, as the buildup was beginning.
Even before the hearing began, anti-war protesters asserted themselves.
MoveOn.org targeted Petraeus in a newspaper advertisement, accusing him of “cooking the books” for the White House. “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” it asked, a wordplay on his name.
Nearly two dozen senators, all Republicans except for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, called on Democrats to denounce the advertisement.
None did, although none stepped forward to defend it, either.
Cindy Sheehan, a prominent critic of the war, was among those hustled from the hearing room by police.
“This is intolerable,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., who chaired the hearing and was forced repeatedly to order police to maintain order.
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