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Petraeus unlikely to have any surprises

Times Staff Writers

Since spring, President Bush has publicly staked the future of his troop buildup strategy in Iraq on a series of briefings that an Army commander will deliver to Congress today and Tuesday -- the long-awaited report by Gen. David H. Petraeus on the state of the war.

“Why don’t you wait and see what [Petraeus] says?” Bush urged Congress in May. “Fund the troops, and let him come back and report to the American people.”

Bush’s reasoning, aides said, was simple: An assessment from Petraeus, a widely admired officer, was likely to enjoy more credibility with Congress and the public than anything the president could say. Aides knew, as well, that Petraeus was likely to support Bush’s strategy in Iraq, because the general was one of the architects of the “surge” of additional troops this year to stabilize Baghdad and other areas.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the briefing room. Petraeus’ report may not have as much impact as the White House had hoped, because his message already has been widely anticipated -- and even previewed by the general himself.

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“The surge will run its course,” Petraeus told ABC News last week, forecasting a gradual drawdown of some of the more than 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. “There are limits to what our military can provide, so my recommendations have to be informed . . . by the strain we have put on our military services.”

Officials have said they expect Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to make three major points: The buildup in forces is beginning to show results, but it is too soon to withdraw significant numbers of troops; the government in Baghdad has failed to meet the administration’s political goals, but there are signs of progress at the local level; and, finally, a too-hasty withdrawal could have catastrophic consequences.

Administration officials expect Petraeus to report that the initial phase of the troop buildup has improved security in Baghdad, and in the provinces of Anbar to the west and Diyala to the northeast. He will probably announce that U.S. forces can reduce their presence in Anbar and Diyala, but not in Baghdad.

Petraeus does not intend to deliver a specific recommendation to Congress on how soon and how far to reduce troop levels; that will be up to Bush, who is expected to make an announcement this week. Officials have said that Petraeus and his aides have been considering the possibility of a nominal drawdown of a few thousand troops around year’s end, but that the general does not want any significant reductions until he thinks it is absolutely necessary.

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Petraeus “wants to keep as much force on the ground as we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can,” said one administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.

Instead of withdrawing forces in great numbers, Petraeus has recommended moving troops from Anbar and Diyala to Baghdad or another hot spot. Or they could be sent to Kuwait to create a reserve force.

A military official stationed in Baghdad said that although the forces will be rearranged, he does not expect a major drawdown until the additional forces deployed in the buildup begin to leave in March or April.

“Why take a chance of losing the gains we have made?” the official said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.

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In his report to Congress, Petraeus is expected to emphasize the problems large troop withdrawals would create.

A hasty drawdown could produce “a failed state in the middle of Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia, where you’d have huge problems getting oil to the world market, where you’d potentially have a humanitarian disaster,” Army Col. Michael J. Meese, an advisor to Petraeus, told the Council on Foreign Relations last week.

“Do not think if we pull out that it will not be horrible. If you don’t like Darfur, you won’t like Baghdad,” another officer said.

Administration officials also expect Petraeus to recommend, in either his public or private remarks, that U.S. forces be removed from areas where Iraqi security forces have the strong leadership or long-standing partnerships with U.S. commanders to undertake operations independently.

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“We have already made some decisions out there in areas where success has occurred,” a senior military official said.

But officers close to Petraeus believe he will avoid making predictions of when the Iraqis will be able to take over, saying that previous forecasts failed to materialize and eroded the credibility of U.S. commanders in Iraq.

Administration officials have pointed to reductions in attacks and killings as signs of the buildup’s success, but congressional critics regard the figures as unreliable. Petraeus is expected to underscore such statistics, but will be careful not to overstate their importance, Meese said.

On the political front, Petraeus is expected to talk about the success U.S. forces have met in working with former Sunni insurgents in Anbar. Officials say the administration hopes to repeat the strategy in other regions, including those dominated by Shiite militias.

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But officials acknowledge that political progress has been piecemeal and slow. Petraeus and Crocker are expected to turn the focus from the likelihood of a national reconciliation and instead talk about the importance of smaller steps of local “accommodation” first, one official said.

Ambassador Crocker is expected to argue that although the Iraqi government has not made significant progress on the goals set by the U.S. last year, there is still hope that the country can resolve the differences among its major ethnic and religious groups.

The assessment by Petraeus and Crocker follows a series of reports that have given bleak appraisals of the situation but offered no quick solutions.

Over the weekend, the U.S. Institute of Peace, a congressionally funded think tank, issued a report recommending that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq be cut by half in three years and removed within five years. The report was based on recommendations by many of the experts who advised the Iraq Study Group, a White House-backed commission that in December recommended a change in strategy.

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Administration officials acknowledged that there isn’t a consensus within the military on a way forward, and not all senior advisors agree with Petraeus.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has advocated providing Bush a variety of military opinions and has commissioned assessments from Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Adm. William J. Fallon, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who have met with Bush, are said to favor a smaller overall U.S. presence than Petraeus advocates.

A senior official said he expected that the disagreement among military officials could become public after Petraeus’ appearance, or perhaps after expected comments from Bush later this week.

“There will be some folks who will say, ‘I would do things differently if I were in charge of Iraq,’ ” said the official. “But they are not in charge.”

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doyle.mcmanus@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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