Global Policy Forum

Commander Faces More Doubt in Congressional Hearing


By Brian Knowlton

General David Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the American Ambassador to Iraq, faced a new round of deep congressional skepticism Wednesday, not only about progress in the war and the prospects for eventual withdrawal, but also about whether the nation's involvement in Iraq had made it more vulnerable on other fronts. The general and the ambassador carried their message of "fragile and reversible" progress in the war to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday morning, the day after they testified before two Senate committees. Repeating the opening statements they made to the Senate panels, the two men once again yielded little fresh information about when the American military presence in Iraq could be reduced beyond the roughly 140,000 troops who will be left when the "surge" of about 30,000 extra troops sent to the country in 2007 winds down again in July.

Representative Ike Skelton, Democrat of Missouri and the chairman of the committee, said in opening the hearing that he saw far too few signs of real progress in Iraq, and warned that the continuing war's strains on the American military were diverting the country from attending to other threats, starting with what intelligence reports say is a terrorist resurgence along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. "The effort in Iraq is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us," he said. Skelton said that while the "surge" had temporarily lowered the amount of violence in Iraq, Iraqis had failed to "step up" to take advantage of the improved security. And he said he feared that officials in Baghdad would feel no sense of urgency to pursue sectarian reconciliation and achieve full autonomy until "we take the training wheels off and let the Iraqis begin to stand on their own two feet."

Petraeus and Crocker acknowledged the problems - "The situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory, and innumerable challenges remain," the general told the House panel, as he had the Senate committees on Tuesday - but the two men said that the current course was producing important results and that it was the only way forward. "I do remain convinced that a major departure from our current engagement would bring failure," Crocker said. Representative Duncan Hunter of California, the ranking Republican on the committee, agreed with their assessment.

While some had declared the surge a failure from the start, he said, "I think, by all metrics, it's been a success." He cited Anbar Province, where some formerly hostile Sunni tribesmen are now aligned with American forces, saying the situation there had changed from violent to "extremely benign." Despite lingering problems in the Iraqi Army, Hunter said, "I think they've made enormous advances and improvements since the last hearing we held."

Petraeus and Crocker are to appear Wednesday afternoon before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, their fourth Congressional hearing in two days. President George W. Bush, who has indicated that he expects to rely heavily on the general's recommendations, is scheduled to outline his policy for the months ahead at the White House on Thursday. Despite their regular prodding and criticism of the administration on the conduct and cost of the war, the Democrats in Congress appeared to lack sufficient support to force a significant change in the president's approach.

With some exceptions, congressional Republicans have stood with Bush. Petraeus's plan, laid out for both the House and Senate committees, is to hold force levels steady after the surge ends in July, with no new withdrawals for at least 45 days, while commanders evaluate the situation in Iraq. That would leave little time to withdraw more than two or three brigades before the end of the Bush presidency, even if a pullout began in earnest as soon as the 45-day period ended.

But in his testimony before the Senate panels, the general seemed far from ready to recommend such withdrawals, or even to say under what conditions he might favor them, despite persistent questioning from Democrats on the two committees. The hearings Tuesday lacked the suspense of the debate last September, when the focus was on measurable benchmarks and heightened expectations of speedy troop withdrawals. But they thrust the war to the center of the presidential campaign, as Petraeus faced questioning from the two Democrats and one Republican still vying for the White House. He told them at one point that progress in Iraq had been "significant and uneven."Petraeus's tone was notably sober, and he acknowledged that "we haven't turned any corners, we haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel," despite the intensified American military campaign over the past 15 months of the surge. Though the increased troop commitment sharply reduced insurgent attacks across much of Iraq last year, the relative calm was broken last month when the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered an assault on Shiite militias in Basra, setting off renewed violence there and around Baghdad.

At times, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidates, and Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, seemed to be talking about two different wars. "We're no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success," McCain said. Clinton, sitting just a few feet away as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited Iraq's sluggish political progress and a questionable recent Iraqi military campaign in Basra as evidence not of success, but rather failure. "It might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again," Clinton said. Obama, Clinton's rival, restated his view that the war in Iraq had been a "massive strategic blunder." During a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee, he said his efforts to end the war would include a timetable for withdrawing troops and an intensified diplomatic effort that would include talks with Iran.

In their remarks Tuesday, Petraeus and Crocker referred only infrequently to the political benchmarks that served as a framework for their testimony last fall, but which the Iraqi government for the most part has been unable to achieve. "Countless sectarian fault lines still exist in Baghdad and elsewhere," Petraeus said. But he noted that Sunni leaders previously marginalized by Iraq's Shiite-led government had joined the security efforts over recent months, with important successes.

Petraeus said the security situation in Iraq remained in flux in part because of the "destructive role Iran has played," with its backing of "special groups" of Shiite radicals that he said now posed the greatest immediate threat in Iraq. He said that the threat posed by Sunni extremists who say they are aligned with Al Qaeda had been "reduced significantly" but would required "relentless pressure" to ensure that the extremists did not regroup.

Both Petraeus and Crocker faced sharp questioning from Democrats who sounded increasingly exasperated. "A year ago, the president argued that we wouldn't begin to withdraw troops from Iraq, because there was too much violence," Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said. "Now the president argues we can't begin to withdraw troops, because violence is down."

A recurring theme of the criticism involved the financial costs of the war at a time when Iraq has built up a budget surplus fueled by high oil prices. Another was that a timetable for withdrawing American forces would force the Iraqi government to shoulder more responsibility for its own fate. The Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, also criticized the Bush administration's negotiations on a lasting security agreement with Iraq and its refusal to submit the agreement to the Senate for ratification. Crocker repeated several times that the agreement being negotiated would not rise to a level requiring a Senate vote, but that did not satisfy Biden. "You need to do much more than inform the Congress; you need the permission of the Congress if you're going to bind the next president of the United States in anything you agree to," Biden said.

In the Senate galleries, protesters echoed those attacks, interrupting the debate on occasions. As McCain argued against what he described as "reckless and irresponsible" calls for rapid withdrawal from Iraq, a protester stood up with a banner saying, "There's no military solution." When Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, questioned Petraeus on when reductions of troops could continue, a man shouted, "Bring them home," and was later evicted. A group of women attended in traditional Muslim dress, their faces painted with ghostly makeup. Some held bloodied dolls, and some had red-stained hands. Their signs read, "Surge of Sorrow" and "Endless War." Even some Republicans voiced reservations about a war effort whose end remained far from clear. "Our patience is not unlimited," said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who was sworn in less than a year ago.

But Petraeus signaled that the war was far from a foreseeable end. "We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel," he said when pressed by Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana about the basis for his positive assumptions. "The Champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible."

This article incorporates portions of an earlier report on the Senate hearings by Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker.


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