By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 18, 2007
Conditions in Iraq will not improve sufficiently by September to justify a drawdown of U.S. military forces, the top commander in Iraq said yesterday.
Asked whether he thought the job assigned to an additional 30,000 troops deployed as the centerpiece of President Bush's new war strategy would be completed by then, Gen. David H. Petraeus replied: "I do not, no. I think that we have a lot of heavy lifting to do."
Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, his diplomatic counterpart in Baghdad, said a key report they will deliver to Washington in September will include what Crocker called "an assessment of what the consequences might be if we pursue other directions." Noting the "unhelpful roles" being played by Iran and Syria in Iraq, Crocker said: "We've got to consider what could happen."
Comments by Petraeus on "Fox News Sunday" and Crocker on NBC's "Meet the Press" were an indication of the administration's evolving strategy for confronting rising congressional demands to begin planning troop withdrawals. In addition to warning about the possible regional consequences of withdrawal, both men emphasized a "mixed" picture on the ground, citing successes while acknowledging the difficulty of the task ahead.
Asserting steady, albeit slow, military and political progress, Petraeus said that the "many, many challenges" would not be resolved "in a year or even two years." Similar counterinsurgency operations, he said, citing Britain's experience in Northern Ireland, "have gone at least nine or 10 years." He said he and Crocker would make "some recommendations on the way ahead" to Congress, and that it was realistic to assume "some form of long-term security arrangement" with Iraq.
Democrats failed last month to impose a withdrawal timetable in war-funding legislation. But the enacted measure mandated assessments of military, political and economic progress from Petraeus and Crocker -- rather than from Washington-based administration and military officials -- by Sept. 15.
A growing number of prominent Republicans who last month rejected any mention of withdrawal now say they view the September report as a crossroads.
"I think everybody anticipates that there's going to be a new strategy in the fall," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I don't think we'll have the same level of troops, in all likelihood, that we have now," totaling more than 150,000. "The time to properly evaluate that, it strikes me, is in September."
On the Iraqi political front, McConnell said, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been "a big disappointment. They have not done the things that they know they need to do to hold their country together -- things like the new oil law, things like local elections, things like finishing the de-Baathification process."
In announcing his new strategy in January, Bush said the troop increase would diminish sectarian violence in Baghdad and break Sunni insurgent control in Anbar province, a stronghold of the group al-Qaeda in Iraq. The ensuing calm, the administration said, would give the Shiite-dominated Maliki government time and space to reconcile with the minority Sunni and Kurdish communities, and build a unified administration that Iraqis -- including many now involved in violence -- would support.
But since the deployment of five additional U.S. combat brigades began in early spring, the overall level of violence has not abated and in some respects has increased, according to a Pentagon report issued last week. Little progress has been reported in achieving the political benchmarks spelled out in the funding legislation as well as a revision of the Iraqi constitution to provide a better balance of regional and sectarian factions in the government.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in Baghdad on Saturday that he had told the Iraqi government "that our troops are buying them time to pursue reconciliation, that frankly we are disappointed by the progress so far." The same message, he said, had been conveyed by Deputy Secretary of State John D. Negroponte and Adm. William J. Fallon, head of the U.S. military's Central Command, during Iraq visits last week.
In an interview posted on its Web site Saturday, Newsweek magazine quoted Maliki as criticizing administration statements that appeared to be "dictating to the Iraqi government." He said he had told U.S. officials that words such as "pressure" and "timetables . . . do not help."
Contradicting reports of difficulties in reaching agreement among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, Maliki reportedly said that draft laws on oil, de-Baathification and provincial elections "are all ready and will be submitted to the parliament next week."
Petraeus and Crocker took issue with the portrayal of last week's Pentagon report as overwhelmingly negative, and cited successes in Anbar and in some Baghdad neighborhoods. They acknowledged that as U.S. and Iraqi troops had concentrated on those areas, insurgent activity had sharply increased elsewhere, mainly in the southern belt of Baghdad's suburbs and in Diyala province, northeast of the capital.
But Petraeus said that the arrival last week of the last of the newly deployed brigades had allowed a shift in U.S. strategy, "enabling us now to launch operations into sanctuaries, areas in which we have had very little coalition force presence other than raids in recent years."
Asked about the recent comment by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) that Petraeus's optimistic assessment of security in Baghdad indicated that the general "isn't in touch with what's going on," Petraeus said that he has tried "not to pull punches" and to "present both the good and the bad." His report in September, he said, "will be a forthright assessment of what we've achieved and what we haven't achieved."