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Petraeus, Democrats square off

Times Staff Writers

Spurning appeals for continued U.S. troop withdrawals, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq ran headlong into a central dispute of the war during a daylong session before Congress on Tuesday: whether deeper cuts would force the Iraqi government to finally take charge or lead it to collapse.

As expected, back-to-back Senate committee hearings spotlighting Army Gen. David H. Petraeus became a confrontation between two immovable forces. But there was no real decision at stake: President Bush is expected Thursday to endorse Petraeus’ recommendation for a suspension of withdrawals in July, insisting that security gains over the last 15 months can lead toward a sustainable future, with continued U.S. help.

Speaking for hour after hour in his professorial monotone, Petraeus pressed that case, colliding repeatedly with an entrenched view among Democrats that Iraq’s time to become more self-sufficient had arrived, and that troop withdrawals could help bring it about.

For Petraeus, the stakes of his second high-profile congressional appearance were not as steep as they were during his first seven months ago, when a prolonged period of intense violence nearly pushed Congress to seek a quick exit. The general’s September performance is credited with calming the jitters. This time around, the four-star commander, again with an array of charts and graphs, made his case before lawmakers whose partisan positions had hardened during months of intense presidential campaigning, and he appeared to sway fewer opinions.

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Democrat after Democrat, including the party’s two remaining presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, questioned whether the costs of the strategy proposed by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who also testified, were too high.

Petraeus, who notably stumbled in September when asked whether the war in Iraq was making America safer, this time insisted the U.S. had vital interests in the country that must be addressed to avoid risking its own safety and security.

“The seeds of a nascent democracy have been planted in an Arab country that was the cradle of civilization,” Petraeus said. “And though the germination of those seeds has been anything but smooth, there has been growth.”

Petraeus’ case was complicated by the recent outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in southern Iraq, which has spilled over into once-peaceful neighborhoods in Baghdad. But he asserted that although the new fighting proved that security gains were “fragile and reversible,” stability has improved markedly since his previous appearance before Congress.

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By keeping force levels at 140,000 into the autumn -- a few thousand more than before Bush announced the troop buildup in January 2007 -- U.S. officials can build on recent gains and the Iraqi government can gradually take over responsibility, he argued.

“This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable,” he acknowledged. “However, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.”

Petraeus refused to specify what might take place following a recommended 45-day suspension in troop reductions. Under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general said withdrawals could resume almost immediately if security gains proved enduring -- or could be delayed by three or four months, depending on conditions.

That answer led Democrats to accuse Petraeus of advocating an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces. Clinton and Obama both took up the argument, though in significantly different ways.

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Clinton re-emphasized points she and Democrats had made before: that even with security gains, the Iraqi government has proved incapable of political reconciliation, and that U.S. troops tied down in Iraq are needed elsewhere.

“I think it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront Americans,” the New York senator said during the morning hearing before the Armed Services Committee.

Obama, on the other hand, argued that both Petraeus and Crocker were setting the bar for success too high, making it nearly impossible to ever achieve goals or withdraw troops.

During the afternoon hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, the Illinois senator argued for consideration of more limited goals: an Iraqi government that could contain if not eradicate Sunni Arab radicals and could hold its own against Iranian influences, if not expel them.

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“When you have finite resources, you’ve got to define your goal tightly and modestly,” Obama said.

Several Republicans questioned Petraeus’ strategy with equal vigor. They included GOP critics who had made their objections known in the past, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

But they were joined Tuesday by Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a respected Republican on foreign policy issues, who questioned whether the Bush administration strategy seeks realistic outcomes and suggested the White House needed to reconsider its policy.

“Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient,” Lugar said.

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Still, Republicans mostly backed Petraeus’ call for a pause in withdrawals this summer. Among them were Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who argued that the U.S. must continue to support Iraqi efforts with a robust military presence.

“This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, the calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment we are succeeding,” McCain said.

Although the clash over troop levels dominated both hearings, the role of Iran loomed almost equally large, with Petraeus stating that Iranian-backed “special groups” -- radical elements within Shiite Muslim militias -- pose the greatest long-term threat to Iraqi stability.

Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, gave the most detailed analysis of Iranian goals in Iraq delivered by a senior U.S. official.

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He said that Tehran had links to nearly every Iraqi Shiite faction and was attempting to create a proxy force within Iraq analogous to Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite movement in Lebanon whose militia rivals the national military.

“Iran is pursuing, as it were, a ‘Lebanonization’ strategy, using the same techniques they used in Lebanon, to co-opt elements of the local Shia community and use them as basically instruments of Iranian force,” Crocker said. “That also tells me, sir, that in the event of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, the Iranians would just push that much harder.”

Iran denies supporting Shiite militias in Iraq.

Crocker cast doubt on reports that the Iranian unit known as the Quds Force brokered the cease-fire that ended open warfare between Shiite factions last month in Basra, but Petraeus said the unit had trained and equipped many of the extremist Iraqis responsible for recent violence in Baghdad.

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“The hand of Iran was very clear in recent weeks,” Petraeus said.

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peter.spiegel@latimes.com

julian.barnes@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Voices

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‘This new increase in violence raises questions about the military success of the surge. But more significantly, the purpose of the surge, as announced by President Bush last year, which was to give the Iraqi leaders breathing room to work out a settlement, has not been achieved.’

-- Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)

‘As I hear the questions and the statements today, it seems to me that there’s a kind of “hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq and, most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq.” The fact is there has been progress in Iraq.’

-- Sen. Joe

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‘You mentioned that the era of our paying for major reconstruction is over. But we’re continuing to pay the salaries of the Sons of Iraq in many cases. We’re continuing to pay for the training and equipping of Iraqi forces. . . . Isn’t it time for the Iraqis to start bearing more of those expenses, particularly in light of the windfall in revenues due to the high price of oil?’

-- Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)

‘And 15 months into the surge, we’ve gone from drowning to treading water. We’re still spending $3 billion every week and we’re still losing -- thank God it’s less -- but 30 to 40 American lives every month.’

-- Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.)

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