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Frustrated senators see no Iraq exit signs

Asked repeatedly what "conditions" he is looking for to begin substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq , Gen. David Petraeus said he will know them when he sees them. For frustrated lawmakers, it was not enough.
Image: Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Gen. David Petraeus, left, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testify on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday. "Almost everything about Iraq is hard," Crocker told wary senators.Susan Walsh / AP
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Asked repeatedly yesterday what "conditions" he is looking for to begin substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq after this summer's scheduled drawdown, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he will know them when he sees them. For frustrated lawmakers, it was not enough.

"A year ago, the president said we couldn't withdraw because there was too much violence," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "Now he says we can't afford to withdraw because violence is down." Asked Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.): "Where do we go from here?"

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said: "I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like."

But the bottom line was that there was no bottom line. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker echoed what they said seven months ago in their last update to Congress -- often using similar words. Iraq's armed forces continue to improve, overall levels of violence are lower than they were last year, and political reconciliation is happening, albeit still more slowly than they would like.

"Iraq is hard, and reconciliation is hard," Crocker said in September. Yesterday, he added: "Almost everything about Iraq is hard."

Lots of math, few answers
In eight hours of testimony, the two men danced around the question of what constitutes success in Iraq. "As I've explained, again, from a military perspective," Petraeus said wearily as the day drew to a close, ". . . what we want to do is to look at conditions and determine where it is without taking undue risks. This is all about risk."

"We'll look at the circumstances and assess," Crocker said, as he and Petraeus spoke of "battlefield geometry" and "political-military calculus."

What worked in September -- an overall sense of progress that gave the Bush administration additional time to pursue its "surge" policy of sending nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq -- sparked little enthusiasm this time among lawmakers who had hoped for a brighter light at the end of the tunnel. Much of their frustration appeared to stem from a realization that there was little they could do to affect policy in the administration's final nine months.

Petraeus said he has recommended to President Bush that the planned withdrawal of the five "surge" combat brigades by the end of July be followed by a 45-day hiatus for "consolidation and evaluation." Then, Petraeus said, he would begin "a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground" and determine whether to recommend "further reductions as conditions permit."

Hedging their bets
The scheduled withdrawals, Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) said dismissively, are "just the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy."

Several Republicans were effusive in their praise for Petraeus, Crocker and the administration's policy. "We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat," said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.). Instead, the presumed GOP presidential nominee said that "success is within reach."

McCain hedged his bets with other tough questions, but he left it to others to throw their support behind administration policy. "According to some, we should fire you," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the witnesses. "It sounds like . . . really nothing good has happened in the last year and this is a hopeless endeavor. Well, I beg to differ."

Graham and others opened the door for Petraeus and Crocker to match White House rhetoric on the ongoing threat from al-Qaeda in Iraq and the rising menace of Iran. But while Petraeus noted that the recent Iraqi government offensive in Basra against the Iranian-backed Shiite militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr illustrated Tehran's malign influence, Crocker repeated something he said in September: Persian Iran is up to no good in Iraq, but its role there is limited by deep Arab Iraqi antipathy.

Both Petraeus and Crocker described the Basra operation as a positive demonstration of Iraqi sovereignty and military determination, though one with operational flaws.

‘Our patience is not unlimited’
Petraeus confirmed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had rejected his advice to delay the offensive until Iraqi troops were better prepared.

"There is no question that it could have been better planned," Petraeus said. He agreed that the 1,000 Iraqi army troops and police who either deserted or refused to fight were "a disappointment." But, he added, thousands of others had fought well, particularly in other areas of southern Iraq where simultaneous violence also broke out.

The witnesses also held firm on an issue raised on both sides of the aisle: whether the administration would submit a security agreement it is negotiating with Iraq to the Senate for ratification. Crocker said that the Iraqis intend to submit the accord to their own parliament, but he added that he does not know whether it would require a vote there. "It is our intention," he said, that the pact will be an "executive agreement" not requiring U.S. congressional approval.

But many Republicans joined their Democratic colleagues in decrying the days of open-ended war and an open U.S. checkbook, and in demanding to know what the administration is doing to pressure the Iraqi government and military to take responsibility for its own fate. "We're a generous people," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), "but our patience is not unlimited."

Petraeus and Crocker repeated warnings that al-Qaeda in Iraq, while weakened, remains a threat. But they described an ongoing U.S. troop presence as necessary largely because no one is certain that security gains will endure if U.S. forces leave. The consequences of withdrawal, Crocker said, "could be grave."

But after hours of questions, they acknowledged that they had gotten at least part of the message. The United States was still funding the roughly 90,000 Sunni security volunteers who Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is reluctant to put on its payroll, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told Petraeus. "I'm just asking you why you would object to asking [Iraq] to pay for that entire program, given all we are giving them in blood and everything else."

"It is a very fair question," Petraeus responded, "and I think that if there's anything that the ambassador and I will take back to Iraq candidly after this morning's session and this afternoon's is, in fact, to ask those kinds of questions more directly."