By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the expected new top commander in Iraq, yesterday gave Congress a stark preview of the challenge ahead, saying sectarian violence has reduced Baghdad's population to a daily struggle for survival, undermined the U.S. strategy of handing responsibility to Iraqi forces and created the prospect of a "failed state."
Petraeus voiced confidence, however, in a new approach that would shift the focus to protecting the population by pushing tens of thousands of additional U.S. and Iraqi troops deep into Baghdad neighborhoods, one aimed at allowing Iraq's government to "come to grips with" what he called an "exceedingly difficult situation."
"The way ahead will be neither quick nor easy, and undoubtedly there will be tough days. We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy. He will try to wait us out," Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a confirmation hearing. "Any such endeavor is a test of wills, and there are no guarantees."
Indeed, Petraeus promised simply to provide "the best leadership and direction I can muster" and "forthright" military advice, even if he concludes the mission is lost. "Should I determine that the new strategy cannot succeed, I will provide such an assessment," he said, reassuring senator after senator that he would speak up if he believed U.S. civilian leaders were making false statements about Iraq.
Twice a commander in Iraq, Petraeus won strong endorsement from both Democratic and Republican senators as one of the U.S. military's most talented officers -- but many also wished him "Godspeed" in leading what they described as the "last chance" for the U.S. military to bring stability to Iraq.
Petraeus said he had asked Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to execute the push of 21,500 U.S. troops into Iraq "as quickly as possible," saying the five additional brigades should be in place in Baghdad by May, providing a new "critical mass" to clear and hold districts of the city of 6 million people.
Asked by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whether he could carry out his mission without the additional troops, Petraeus said no. He said the Pentagon is planning options for continuing the buildup, and said Gates told him it was his job to request additional forces if needed. He applauded Gates's recent decision to increase the permanent size of the Army and Marine Corps by 92,000, acknowledging the stress that has depleted the readiness of U.S. ground forces.
Senior Army officers said yesterday that all the Army's combat brigades in the United States -- except for the handful on alert or ready to go overseas within a month -- are currently rated as unready to deploy. If there is another "combat scenario" involving the demand for heavy conventional forces, "that's where America is taking risk," Lt. Gen. Stephen Speakes, the Army's deputy chief of staff, told reporters.
Under questioning from senators opposed to the Iraq buildup, Petraeus allowed for the possibility that the troop flow could be aborted if the Iraqi government fails to provide three more Iraqi army brigades for Baghdad or fulfill other pledges. He said Iraqi commanders told him yesterday that three or four additional Iraqi battalions had already arrived in Baghdad, and that some of them, with predominantly Kurdish troops, were being welcomed by citizens.
He rejected the concern raised by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) that the addition of more U.S. troops would inflame the insurgency. "I think that at this point in Baghdad, the population just wants to be secure, and truthfully, they don't care who does it," he said.
Petraeus acknowledged that the strategy shift to "controlling" terrain and protecting the population would lead to heightened risks for U.S. troops, who have suffered a spike in casualties in recent days. He assured senators that U.S. troops in Baghdad would remain under an American military chain of command, though he acknowledged the complications of having a dual command chain with partnering Iraqi forces.
Despite such risks, Petraeus warned of incalculable dangers of any rapid U.S. military withdrawal from Iraq, as favored by many congressional Democrats, saying it would lead to intensified terrorist inroads, "ethnic cleansing" and a bloodbath in Baghdad.
In a move that is unusual for an active-duty officer, Petraeus also spoke against pending Senate resolutions disapproving of the new Bush administration strategy. Asked by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) whether those resolutions would give encouragement to the enemy by exposing divisions among the American people, he replied: "That's correct."
His statement drew a sharp rebuke from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who said, "I very sincerely but wholeheartedly disagree," saying the point was to send a message to Iraqis.
Pressed later by other senators -- including committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) -- Petraeus said he did not intend his statements to be taken as opposing or supporting any resolutions.
Levin, a leading critic of the administration's Iraq policy, also repeatedly urged Petraeus to hold the Iraqi government accountable on benchmarks it agreed to with President Bush. "We certainly will to the very best of our ability," Petraeus answered.
Levin then asked what leverage the United States had over the Iraqi government if it failed to perform to expectations, as it has in the past. "Providing assistance or withholding assistance in various forms," Petraeus replied, agreeing with Levin that the consequences should be "clear, real and significant."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked if Petraeus had a "high degree of confidence" that the new plan would work.
"I believe this plan can succeed if in fact all of those enablers and all the rest of the assistance is provided," Petraeus said, adding that interagency help for the war effort "needs to be substantially more robust than it is."
On a personal note, Petraeus said he fully understood the daunting job he faces.
"Many of the e-mails I've received in recent weeks have had as their subject line 'Congratulations -- I think,' " he said. "I know how heavy a rucksack I will have to shoulder in Iraq if confirmed," he said. But he said he would accept the call to "soldier again with those who are part of the brotherhood of the close fight" and out of an obligation to help the Iraqi people.