The top U.S. commander in Iraq told Congress Tuesday that hard-won gains in the war zone are too fragile to promise any troop pullouts beyond this summer, holding his ground against impatient Democrats and refusing to commit to more withdrawals before President Bush leaves office in January.
In testimony that featured questioning by the major presidential candidates, Army Gen. David Petraeus painted a picture of a nation struggling to suppress violence among its own people and to move toward the political reconciliation that Bush said a year ago was the ultimate aim of his new Iraq strategy, which included sending more than 20,000 extra combat troops.
Security is getting better, and Iraq's own forces are becoming more able, Petraeus said. But he also ticked off a list of reasons for worry, including the threat of a resurgence of Sunni or Shiite extremist violence. He highlighted Iran as a special concern, for its training and equipping of extremists.
In back-to-back appearances before two Senate committees, Petraeus was told by a parade of Democrats that, after five years of war, it was past time to turn over much more of the war burden to the Iraqis. Those senators said Iraq will not attain stability until the United States makes the decision to begin withdrawing in large numbers and forces the Iraqis to settle their differences.
Petraeus didn't budge. He said he had recommended to Bush that he complete, by the end of July, the withdrawal of the 20,000 extra troops. Beyond that, the general proposed a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation," to be followed by an indefinite period of assessment before he would recommend any further pullouts.
The Petraeus plan, which Bush is expected to embrace, reflects a conservative approach that leaves open the possibility that roughly 140,000 U.S. troops could remain in Iraq when the president leaves office next year.
On Thursday Bush will make a speech about the war, now in its sixth year, and his decision about troop levels.
Levin worries about 'no end'
In exchanges with several senators, Petraeus refused to say when he thought it would be safe to resume troop reductions beyond July without risking "fragile and reversible" security gains.
Asked Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee: "Could that be a month, could that be two months?"
Petraeus began to respond: "Sir, it could be less than that. It could be. ..."
Levin: "Could it be more than that?"
Petraeus: "It could be more than that. Again, it's when the conditions are met that we can make a recommendation for further reductions."
Levin: "Could it be three months?"
Petraeus: "Sir, again, at the end of the period of consolidation and evaluation. ..."
On they went in the same vein, even after a demonstrator — "Bring them home! Bring them home!" — interrupted the hearing and was escorted out.
Bayh presses for timeline
When Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., started in again later, Petraeus said it would defy logic to establish a timetable before knowing what conditions will be like this summer.
"If you believe as I do — and the commanders on the ground believe — that the way forward on reductions should be conditions-based then it is just flat not responsible to try to put down a stake in the ground and say this is when it would be or that is when it would be," Petraeus said.
Petraeus said his plan is supported by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has been notably public in his expressions of concern that the heavy commitment of troops in Iraq has limited U.S. military options elsewhere and has put enormous strain on troops and their families.
Petraeus made no mention of reducing soldiers' tours of duty in Iraq from the current 15 months to 12 months, but the administration is expected to announce a decision to do that this week. It would take effect this summer, coinciding with the completion of the drawdown to 15 combat brigades in Iraq.
Petraeus said the recent flare-up of violence in Basra, in Baghdad and elsewhere points up the importance of the cease-fire declared last year by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and highlighted the role Iran allegedly plays in funding and training Shiite militias through cells the U.S. military calls "special groups."
"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus said.
Ambassador testifies as well
Testifying beside Petraeus was Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, who also focused on the violence in Basra, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched Iraqi security forces to combat Shiite militias.
"Taken as a snapshot, with scenes of increasing violence, and masked gunmen in the streets, it is hard to see how this situation supports a narrative of progress in Iraq," Crocker said. "There is still very much to be done to bring full government control to the streets of Basra and eliminate entrenched extremist, criminal, and militia groups. When viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to combat these groups in Basra has major significance."
Crocker said a long-term agreement the U.S. is now negotiating with Iraq will give a needed legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. troops. Many in Congress have raised alarm about the agreement, and Democrats have accused the White House of trying to set troop levels or other elements of the Bush policy in stone ahead of the U.S. presidential election.
“The agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq, and we anticipate that it will expressly foreswear them,” Crocker said. “The agreement will not specify troop levels, and it will not tie the hands of the next administration.”
Instead, Crocker said, the U.S. negotiators want to make sure that the next U.S. president “arrives in office with a stable foundation upon which to base policy decisions.”
In his opening statement, Levin said that Bush would remove needed pressure on the Iraqi government if he decides to halt the drawdown of U.S. troops.
"An announcement of an open-ended pause in troop reductions, starting in July, would simply send the wrong message to the Iraqi leaders," he said.
Democrats have acknowledged that they are more or less helpless in trying to force Bush's hand on the war. While anti-war legislation has been able to pass the House, it repeatedly sinks in the Senate, where Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles.
They contend, however, that come fall dissatisfied voters will head to the polls and put more Democrats in power, possibly including an anti-war president. In last month's Associated Press-Ipsos poll, only 31 percent said they approve of the job Bush is doing on Iraq.
Violence is down
For now, Petraeus faces a dramatically different political landscape than last fall when support for the war had been eroding steadily among Republicans. Petraeus' testimony helped prevent Republican defections at the time. And since then, a significant drop in violence has helped stave off legislation ordering troops home.
Recent statistics reviewed by the AP show that while violence in Iraq is still down substantially, there have been spikes in both deaths and attacks since the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops began in December.
The internal strife was underscored by a rise in sectarian violence among Iraqis in March, the first such monthly increase since last July.
Defense officials also warned Monday of another likely spike in attacks this week, as U.S. forces strike back at Shiite militia fighters in Baghdad's Sadr City district. And officials also said there are indications that al-Qaida in Iraq is looking for an opportunity to reassert its influence in the Baghdad region.
Petraeus' presentation included statistics reflecting the reduction in violence over the past seven months.
Pressed by Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner whether the U.S. sacrifice — 4,000 dead and billions of dollars spent — has been worth it, Petraeus said it has been.
"Senator, I do believe it is worth it, or I would not have, I guess, accepted — I mean, you do what you're ordered to do, but you sometimes are asked whether you would like to, or are willing to take on a task," he said.
Also this week, possibly on Thursday when Bush addresses the nation on the war, the administration plans to announce that soldiers will spend no longer than 12 months at a time in combat, a decrease of three months in current combat tours.