In a preview of his report to Congress next week, Gen. David H. Petraeus yesterday expressed disappointment in the lack of progress toward political reconciliation in Iraq. Administration officials said he wants to return to Washington for another assessment in six months to allow more time for Iraqi politics to catch up with what Petraeus regards as rapidly improving security conditions.
Writing to his troops, the top U.S. commander in Iraq emphasized that violence there had diminished in eight of the last 11 weeks. But while "many of us had hoped this summer would be a time of tangible political progress," Petraeus said in a letter addressed to "Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and Civilians" serving in Iraq that "it has not worked out as we had hoped."
Striking ‘a delicate balance’
Petraeus has privately signaled that he can accept token reductions in U.S. troop strength, and U.S. military officials in Iraq have begun to identify areas where they can selectively draw down as many as 5,000 troops by spring, administration officials said. But Petraeus, who will be joined in testifying next week by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, wants to reassess conditions in Iraq in March before making further reductions, administration officials said.
"I think Dave will highlight in his testimony that he can see a place in the future where he can begin to shift his weight from doing what he is doing now to a new phase of operations, and that new phase of operations will require fewer troops," one senior administration official said. But he added: "This is a delicate balance to be struck. If you do it too quickly, you endanger the gains you have made."
President Bush's troop increase strategy -- first announced in January -- was premised on the idea that increased security would provide "breathing space" for the Iraqi government to make critical advances toward national reconciliation. Whatever security gains have been achieved have not been matched on the political front, however, and congressional Democrats, along with a influential Republicans, have argued that the Iraqi government is not seizing the opportunity U.S. forces have provided.
White house denies managing message
Petraeus briefed the president and offered his recommendations on how to proceed in Iraq over the last two weeks, but White House officials said they have not seen the text of the testimony he plans to deliver to Congress. They said Bush is not sure exactly what his general will say -- part of an effort to push back at criticism that the administration is stage-managing Petraeus's congressionally mandated appearance.
Although Bush has deflected political pressure to change course in Iraq by urging critics to wait for Petraeus's assessment, White House officials insist that the president himself will make the final determination of what to do in Iraq. Bush is receiving advice from senior Republicans as well as other members of his administration, whose views about Iraq strategy differ in varying degrees from those of Petraeus. Bush must deliver his own progress report on Iraq to Congress by Sept. 15, and administration officials said yesterday they expect him to address the nation before the end of next week.
Petraeus's desire to make another Iraq assessment in six months was seen by some U.S. officials as an effort to forestall any major changes in strategy or troop deployments until security gains solidify and produce hoped-for political progress. For weeks, the president and his top advisers have pointed to the testimony from Petraeus and Crocker as a turning point, but officials are now indicating that they expect little change in strategy or force structure for the immediate future.
With the addition of 30,000 troops in recent months, there are currently about 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. Most U.S. officials expect the number to begin coming down in April, but exactly how fast -- and whether it can begin sooner -- is the subject of a fierce guessing game in Washington.
While Petraeus would like to keep as many forces as possible in place beyond the spring, he has indicated he could accept the removal of a brigade of between 3,500 and 4,500 troops, a senior U.S. official has said.
Turkey-Kurdish feud clouds drawdown
Northern Iraq and western Anbar province are considered the most promising regions for early troop drawdowns, according to military officials. Decisions in each case, officials said, would depend on other factors in addition to decreasing violence, such as the ability of Iraqi military units to take control. An Iraqi brigade currently in Mosul is considered highly capable, and the U.S. commander in northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, said this summer that U.S. troop totals in that region could be halved by 2009. But Turkey, a NATO ally, is unlikely to look favorably on a drawdown in the north until its concerns about cross-border attacks by renegade Iraqi Kurdish fighters are addressed.
The military officials said that even supportive members of Congress would be unlikely to be placated by any spring drawdown smaller than a brigade -- 4,500 to 5,000 troops -- but cautioned that most of the brigades in Iraq are widely dispersed, with components scattered to different areas according to need.
Troops straddling ‘fault lines’
There are many regions of Iraq -- particularly Baghdad and areas to the immediate north and south -- where U.S. troops are sitting on ethnic and sectarian "fault lines," one Baghdad-based officer said. Although they may be at relative peace for the moment, violence is likely to reignite if U.S. troops depart, the officer said.
Petraeus is expected to report that more time is needed for Iraqi forces to be able to control those areas and for local populations to trust each other. Those views conflict with the conclusions of a commission of retired senior officers who presented Congress this week with an independent assessment of Iraq's security forces. It cited a growing culture of Iraqi dependency on the U.S. troop presence.
Data shows mixed progress
One official said Petraeus will offer "a fair amount of data" in his presentation to Congress, including charts demonstrating how violence has diminished since additional U.S. troops began establishing a presence in Baghdad neighborhoods this year. Among the charts prepared for him is a series of color-coded maps of the capital that show a decreased "density of ethno-sectarian attacks" at three-month increments beginning last December. The first map shows much of the city covered with blots of bright red, indicating violent "hot spots." By August, all of the red is gone, and most of the city map is a peaceful green with only a few disparate islands of watchful yellow.
Other charts indicate downward trends in violence on several fronts. An August total of about 1,500 civilian deaths nationwide is up from July but down from a June spike of 1,900. Nationwide deaths from "ethno-sectarian" causes are listed as down by about one-third since February, for an August total of about 900. The charts show a 50 percent drop in deaths resulting from sectarian violence in Baghdad from about 800 in February to 400 in August.
The numbers show significant drops in violence since an eruption of sectarian warfare in mid-2006 that peaked in December. But military officials acknowledged yesterday that current levels of violence in some categories are about where they were last summer.
"When explained in context, statistics are as useful as maps," one official said. "But just like maps, they don't show the potholes." The numbers, he said, "still need to go down quite a bit."
Petraeus has faced tough questions even within the military, notably from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and even his own boss, Centcom Commander Admiral William J. Fallon, about his desire to proceed slowly with any drawdown.
"Fallon has double responsibility and has to sweat both Iraq and Afghanistan, and there simply ain't enough troops to go around," said one U.S. official familiar with the debate. "And Petraeus will try to hold on to as much as he can as long as he can."
Staff writers Robin Wright, Ann Scott Tyson, Thomas E. Ricks and John Solomon contributed to this report.