Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, on Thursday gave Congress a markedly more upbeat assessment of the war than he did six weeks ago, saying violence has hit a four-year low and further troop reductions are likely in the fall.
Qualifying his assessment, Petraeus said the additional troop withdrawals might be small, potentially less than a full 3,500-member combat brigade.
He also said that political goals continued to lag, noting that Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for October will be postponed by at least a month.
But Petraeus was noticeably more optimistic in testimony Thursday than he was during a high-profile appearance on Capitol Hill last month. Then, an Iraqi offensive in the southern city of Basra was faltering, with government troops stymied by Shiite militias, and violence was breaking out in Shiite neighborhoods nationwide.
This time, Petraeus painted a picture of Iraqi troops finally taking the lead against extremist groups and militias on multiple battlefields, from Basra to the northern city of Mosul and Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in between.
"The operation in Basra did have a shaky start, but it has since seen enormous progress that has produced very positive tactical and strategic results," Petraeus said.
"This has been all-important, because there has been a degree of support for Prime Minister [Nouri] Maliki in the subsequent period that is unparalleled during the time that . . . I have been in Iraq."
Petraeus was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to become head of all U.S. forces in the Middle East.
At the same hearing, Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, nominated to become the top Iraq commander -- replacing Petraeus -- said he did not think additional U.S. troops would be needed for the Iraqi provincial elections this fall. Extra units have been sent for past elections.
President Bush, meanwhile, speaking to thousands of troops at Ft. Bragg, N.C., said Thursday that progress in Iraq was "undeniable" and that the U.S. was "on our way to victory."
Petraeus' decision to recommend further U.S. troop reductions this fall could have significant political implications at home. The move probably would occur in September, in the midst of a heated presidential campaign in which presumptive Republican nominee John McCain has staked his candidacy on his advocacy of the 30,000-troop buildup in Iraq last year.
As that buildup ends, the Bush administration is gradually reducing troop numbers to about 140,000, a figure it plans to reach by the end of July. Last month, Bush agreed to a 45-day pause in withdrawals over the summer to assess conditions.
At that time, Petraeus said he could not predict when further reductions could take place.
Senators did not directly ask Petraeus why he had changed his mind. But Petraeus indicated that over the last six weeks, Iraqi forces had demonstrated new competency and Maliki's stature had risen in the wake of the Basra offensive.
The significance of the Iraq operation remains unclear. Fighting in Basra and Sadr City only subsided when Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr ordered his fighters to stand down. But they have yet to fully disarm and could resurface.
Petraeus acknowledged Sadr's role and noted that many of the militia's most radical fighters who were not killed had fled, seeking refuge in Iran.
He injected other notes of caution into his testimony, admitting that the process of handing control of some provinces to Iraqis would be delayed into 2009 because of continued fighting. Earlier plans had called for completion of the hand-over by the end of this year.
Petraeus' confirmation to become head of U.S. Central Command appears likely. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, opened the hearing by saying that he supported the nominations of Petraeus and Odierno, the former No. 2 commander in Iraq.
Petraeus would replace Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, who was forced to resign amid criticism that he had publicly undermined Bush administration policy in the Middle East.
In his new role, Petraeus would still oversee Iraq, but his responsibilities also would include hot spots around the region, including Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Petraeus said negotiations with Tehran could be helpful. But he said they were unlikely to be productive if the Iranian leadership was arming and training Iraqi militias, as U.S. officials have charged.
On Afghanistan, Petraeus warned that the government in Kabul would need "substantial" international commitment "for many years to come" because of the country's poverty and the resurgent Taliban.
Petraeus pledged an early visit to Pakistan to assess the capabilities of domestic security forces countering Taliban and Al Qaeda extremists in Pakistan's western border regions.
Times staff writers James Gerstenzang at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and Alexandra Zavis in Baghdad contributed to this report.