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Petraeus Backs Initial Pullout

Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. or Iraq Ryan Crocker report to the House Armed Services Comm. on the status of Iraq.   Pictured:  Gen. David Petraeus enters the Cannon room #345 hearing room for a walk through prior to the start of the hearing.
Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. or Iraq Ryan Crocker report to the House Armed Services Comm. on the status of Iraq. Pictured: Gen. David Petraeus enters the Cannon room #345 hearing room for a walk through prior to the start of the hearing. (Nikki Kahn - Nikki Kahn - The Washington Post)

Talk of collaboration reflects a shift from last spring, when Democrats appeared more interested in forcing party-line votes meant to put Republicans on the defensive. But liberal Democrats continue to push the caucus to be firmer on the war.

Michael Lerner, an antiwar rabbi, posted on the Internet the transcript of an Aug. 29 conference call with Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) and James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) in which Woolsey called on activists to target "the moderate Democrats who are holding up the whole thing," even endorsing primary challenges. "I'd hate to lose the majority, but I'm telling you," she said, "if we don't stand up to our responsibility, maybe that's the lesson to be learned."

Amid division, some Democratic leaders appeared glum. Hoyer said it was "doubtful" that the day's events had moved either side. "I think everybody's pretty much in the place where we've been," he said. Rep. Dan Boren (Okla.), a conservative Democrat, agreed: "I don't think it's going to change many minds. It's kind of like we're at the same point we were at months ago."

If so, that would be an anticlimactic outcome of what had been building as a potential turning point in the debate over the war. What was proffered in the spring as a fall status report by Petraeus and Crocker became an anticipated moment of truth, with the update even codified into law along with a requirement that the president assess whether Iraq had met 18 security, political and economic goals.

Petraeus showed up at the hearing room yesterday in his crisp uniform covered with medals, after weeks in which he has been the largely silent focus of a furious debate over his credibility and role. War opponents have assailed him as a shill for the White House, with the liberal group even taking out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times dubbing him "General Betray Us" and accusing him of "cooking the books." Some analysts have debated the methodology of statistics used to report decreasing violence in Iraq.

A succession of protesters likewise made their antipathy for the general known at various points during the six-hour hearing. "How can you thank him for his service when we're slaughtering Iraqi civilians?" one woman shouted. An irked Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the Armed Services Committee chairman, who ran the hearing, had disrupters removed and arrested.

One after the other, Republicans leapt to Petraeus's defense and called on Democrats to renounce The general addressed the dispute over whether he was pressured from the start, noting that although he had briefed Bush and his commanders about his assessments and recommendations, he wrote the testimony himself and did not show it to the Pentagon or the White House beforehand. He also defended the "rigor and consistency" of his command's statistics.

The numbers he presented pointed to improvements in security. Security incidents have declined in eight of the past 12 weeks and in the past two weeks reached the lowest levels since June 2006, he said. Civilian deaths, he added, are down 45 percent since December and 70 percent in Baghdad, while sectarian deaths have fallen by 55 percent. And he said U.S. forces have killed or captured nearly 100 leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq and 2,500 rank-and-file fighters.

"The military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met," Petraeus said.

It fell to Crocker to acknowledge that Iraqi political leaders have not made much progress in forging national accord, the original goal of the surge, although he insisted that "the seeds of reconciliation are being planted."

Crocker, a longtime diplomat in the Middle East, appealed for understanding, tracing the Iraqis' problems in reaching consensus to the brutality of Hussein's government and comparing the issues confronting them to those of slavery and civil rights that tore apart the United States for so long.

"Iraq is experiencing a revolution," Crocker said, "not just regime change."

Neither official addressed the Iraqis' performance on the 18 benchmarks outlined by Congress, even though the Government Accountability Office reported last week that only three of the goals had been met. Bush is obligated under legislation he signed last spring to assess the benchmarks in a report by Saturday. With Petraeus and Crocker returning for testimony before the Senate today and then meeting with reporters tomorrow, Bush may deliver his report Thursday along with a national speech.

Petraeus and Crocker offered stark warnings about Iran's role in fomenting violence in Iraq through Shiite militias. Petraeus said it increasingly appears that Iran seeks to create "a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."

The drawdown Petraeus presented moves up the previous military timetable that would have governed the troop increase barring any change in military policy. Military planners have said that the extra forces would have to begin withdrawing in April and that all would be out by August. Petraeus effectively proposed starting sooner but finishing by nearly the same deadline.

Democrats, appearing defensive because of the attack on Petraeus, treated him respectfully throughout the hearing. Perhaps the most emotional exchange came near the end, when Rep. Robert Wexler (Fla.) declared that "the surge has failed" and compared Petraeus's testimony to Gen. William Westmoreland's speech to Congress at the height of the Vietnam War.

"How many more names will be added to the wall before we admit it is time to leave?" Wexler asked, imagining a future Iraq war memorial. "How many more names, General?"

"No one is more conscious of the loss of life than the commander of the forces," Petraeus responded. "That is something I take and feel very deeply. And if I did not think that this was a hugely important endeavor, and if I did not think that it was an endeavor in which we could succeed, I would not have testified as I did to you all here today."

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