Delivering a much-anticipated assessment of the military buildup in Iraq, America’s top commander there, citing improvements in security, recommended Monday that the U.S. start withdrawing some troops later this month but not return to pre-"surge” levels until next summer at the earliest.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said he would send home a force of about 2,200 Marines this month, and he recommended that an Army brigade of about 3,500 return home in December. But Petraeus advised keeping the remainder of the buildup forces -- four brigades and two Marine battalions -- in Iraq through July.
At that point, force levels would drop to the pre-buildup figure, about 130,000.
Since the buildup was announced in January, President Bush has urged Americans to give it time to work. Petraeus’ report, he said, will be a key factor in setting a future course for the war.
Much of the daylong testimony before two House committees, which was televised live, had been previewed in recent days. But there were unexpected elements. Potentially most significant was the general’s announcement that he would decide by March when troop levels could drop below 130,000 -- effectively setting a new deadline for the military, Congress and the Bush administration in the debate over the war’s future.
The “very substantial withdrawal” Petraeus outlined Monday would keep the buildup in place for as long as possible without extending the tours of soldiers beyond the current limit of 15 months: Taking into account those tour limits, which were increased to their current level earlier this year, those additional troops would have had to come home anyway by the end of August. In essence, Petraeus was arguing Monday for a continuation of the buildup until virtually no more Army and Marine units were available.
“The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met,” Petraeus said at the beginning of his testimony. “In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena.”
Petraeus said that by bringing home some forces this year -- a move called for by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), an important moderate voice -- he was starting the drawdown earlier than previously planned. However, his proposal also would slow the removal of brigades, ending the buildup only about a month earlier than was forecast by Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the day-to-day military commander.
Beginning in December, Petraeus proposes to withdraw one brigade every 45 days.
Even though Petraeus said the buildup had had positive results, he and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told lawmakers that the country’s political climate was frustrating and that “success” would require a great deal of time.
Under Petraeus’ plan, the military would decide in March when to implement further cuts in the U.S. force, to 10 to 12 brigades. Such a cut would bring U.S. forces down to about 100,000 troops, a level favored by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Under questioning, Petraeus said the Joint Chiefs had supported his recommendations for drawing down the buildup forces.
The March deadline is bound to rekindle debate over the timing of troop reductions. Democrats have charged that the Bush administration has been delaying key decisions to buy time.
Petraeus said: “I do not believe it is reasonable to have an adequate appreciation for the pace of further reductions and mission adjustments beyond the summer of 2008 until about mid-March of next year.”
In another new feature of U.S. strategy, Petraeus outlined a rough shift in the U.S. mission in Iraq over time. U.S. forces now are “in the lead” in combat operations. Eventually, Petraeus hopes to move them into a position of “overwatch” -- U.S. supervision of Iraqi tactics, operations and strategies -- as opposed to combat.
Petraeus suggested that the United States would continue its current counterinsurgency strategy for some time, but that Iraqi security forces would gradually take more responsibility for leading the operations.
Petraeus displayed a chart indicating a series of possible troop reductions in coming years.
The chart showed that as U.S. combat forces were reduced, the mission would begin to shift from U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations to emphasis on partnering with Iraqis. Eventually, the U.S. would be solely focused on watching over Iraqi forces and leaders.
Rep. Vic Snyder (D-Ark.) asked Petraeus about the troop cuts implied by the graphic and how long that smaller force, of perhaps 50,000 troops, might remain in Iraq. Petraeus said he did not know how long the force would remain, nor when the next cuts would be made.
“There is every intention and recognition that forces will continued to be reduced after the mid-July time frame,” Petraeus said.
Monday’s hearing, before the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees, was the first of a series of appearances by Petraeus and Crocker. The two men are to appear before the Senate today and to take questions from the news media later in the week.
Also later in the week, Bush is expected to outline the Iraq strategy he hopes to pursue in the months ahead.
Both Petraeus and Crocker said it would be possible for the United States to stabilize Iraq. But they cautioned that progress would require a long-term U.S. presence.
Crocker credited the U.S. troop buildup with preventing a worsening of sectarian violence, which gripped Iraq in 2006.
“The country came close to unraveling politically, economically and in security terms,” he said, adding that “2007 has brought improvement.”
Petraeus began the day enveloped in unexpected controversy: A full-page ad sharply critical of him appeared in the New York Times. Placed by the liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org, the ad was headlined, “General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the Books for the White House.”
Although one of the most respected officers in the Army, Petraeus has become a controversial figure. Bush’s constant references to Petraeus over the months have linked the general to the unpopular president, at least in the minds of many Democrats and war critics.
Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) suggested that Petraeus was “cherry-picking” statistics and noted that civilian deaths in 2007 were greater than the previous year.
“I do not question your credibility. You are a true patriot. I admire your service to our nation. I do question your facts,” Wexler said.
Petraeus emphasized his independence, insisting that his recommendations were his own.
“I wrote this testimony myself,” he said.
“It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress.”
The view from Iraq
Petraeus sought to acknowledge instances where he thought progress had failed to materialize, even as he highlighted what he said was improving security.
Sectarian violence is down 55% across Iraq and down 80% in Baghdad since December, he said. But violence remains high, he said.
The Iraqi public itself is skeptical of the surge, according to a survey released Monday by ABC and broadcasters in Britain and Japan. Many believe security has worsened since the buildup began, and most think that the U.S. invasion was wrong and that attacks on U.S. forces are acceptable, the survey found.
Iraqi officials urged patience and warned against a hasty U.S. withdrawal.
“We don’t say that life is rosy. There are problems, and we need to fix them,” said government spokesman Ali Dabbagh, speaking on Al Hurra television.
For all the progress reported on the security front, political progress was, as expected, deemed far more halting.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) suggested that despite security improvements, the troop buildup had not achieved its larger goals. “We should temper enthusiasm by remembering: This is Iraq, and nothing has been easy there,” Skelton said.
When the buildup was announced this year, administration and military leaders said its purpose was to improve security so that political progress could take place.
Goals outlined by the administration were codified by Congress into 18 political and military benchmarks.
In July, the White House reported that fewer than half of the benchmarks showed satisfactory progress. The Government Accountability Office said this month that the Iraqi government had met only three benchmarks.
“Mr. Ambassador,” Skelton asked, “why should we in Congress expect the next six months to be any different than it has been in the past?”
Crocker replied that Iraqi legislators had proved themselves capable of debating the issues seriously.
But he said that he too was frustrated.
“I frankly do not expect that we are going to see rapid progress through these benchmarks,” Crocker said.
Times staff writers Tina Susman and Ned Parker in Baghdad contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus
Born: Nov. 7, 1952.
Career: Commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq since February; commanding general at the Combined Arms Center and Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., supervising much of the Army’s education system and developing the military’s war-fighting doctrine, including the new counterinsurgency manual, 2005-2007; two tours in Iraq, first as commander of the 101st Airborne and then as the general overseeing the training of Iraq forces, 2003-2005; a top military official in Bosnia, including on a counter-terrorism task force, 2001-2002.
Education: Bachelor’s degree, U.S. Military Academy, 1974; 1985 master’s degree and 1987 doctorate in international relations from Princeton University.
Family: Wife, Holly; two children.
Source: Times research
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Born: June 19, 1949.
Career: U.S. ambassador to Iraq since March; U.S. ambassadorships to Pakistan (2004-2007), Syria (1998-2001), Kuwait (1994-1997), Lebanon (1990-1993); National War College international affairs advisor, 2003-2004; first Iraq Coalition Provisional Authority director of governance, 2003; reopened U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, 2002; deputy assistant secretary of State for Near East Affairs (focus on Iraq), 2001-2003; posted to U.S. Embassy in Beirut during Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and bombings of embassy and Marine barracks in 1983; joined Foreign Service in 1971.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from Whitman College in Washington, 1971.
Family: Wife, Christine Barnes, ex-Foreign Service secretary.
Source: Times research