By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus told Congress yesterday that the deployment of 30,000 more troops to Iraq has made enough progress that the additional combat forces can be pulled out by next summer, but he cautioned against "rushing to failure" with a larger and speedier withdrawal.
In what some called the most anticipated congressional testimony by a general since the Vietnam War, Petraeus presented an upbeat picture of improving security conditions in Iraq and offered a grim forecast of the "devastating consequences" of a more rapid pullout. Petraeus said his forces "have dealt significant blows" to al-Qaeda in Iraq but warned that Iran is now fighting a "proxy war" against Iraqi and U.S. forces there.
The partial troop pullout Petraeus outlined in a joint appearance with Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker represents a modest acceleration of what military planners were privately forecasting but is the first drawdown the two men have publicly supported since becoming the top U.S. military and civilian officials in Baghdad. President Bush, in a televised national address later this week, is likely to adopt the recommendation for this rollback of his troop "surge," while war critics immediately condemned it as too little, too late.
Either way, the general's report and troop proposal opened a new phase in the fractious Washington debate over the future of the U.S. venture in Iraq nearly 4 1/2 years after Bush ordered an invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. From this point on, the argument will no longer be about whether to withdraw U.S. troops but about how many to pull out and how quickly.
Petraeus's plan would rotate 2,200 Marines out of Anbar province in western Iraq this month without replacing them, then begin pulling out 17,500 Army troops and 2,000 more Marines starting in mid-December. If logistics personnel and other supporting troops are also withdrawn, that would return force levels to the "pre-surge" number of 130,000 by mid-July. The general asked Congress to defer decisions on further reductions until March to get a better sense of the political and security situation.
"Like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort," Petraeus testified before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. "There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And although we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. . . . A premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."
Some Democrats challenged Petraeus, although respectfully and with few sparks. Rep. Tom Lantos (Calif.), the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman, complained that the general depicted the options as a choice between a nominal drawdown and a precipitous pullout without considering any middle ground. "Juxtaposing your token proposal with a hypothetical, rapid and irresponsible proposal does not do justice to this most important issue," Lantos said.
"What I recommended was a very substantial withdrawal," Petraeus countered.
Republicans, by contrast, seized on the plan as a political lifeboat after months of being forced to vote against measures repudiating Bush's policy. "Let the generals in the field dictate," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (N.C.). "We would support it," said Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), a member of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
House Democratic leaders met yesterday in the office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) to plot their next step. While House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) called Petraeus's drawdown "positive," Democrats said the House is likely to vote on three bills that would go further -- mandating a withdrawal timetable for all combat forces or specified rest time for units between deployments, and giving Bush 60 days to send Congress a more detailed pullout plan.
That would give Senate Democrats a menu to try to attract enough GOP support to break filibusters with 60 votes. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) are negotiating terms of another Iraq floor debate that could begin next week. McConnell said the goal is "to forge some sort of bipartisan consensus over a long-term strategy for Iraq and the Middle East."
Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a conservative Democrat, has persuaded a group of moderate Republicans to sit down with House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) to discuss options. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, vowed to produce legislation that "would bring a meaningful change of direction in Iraq and get enough Republicans to get through the Senate."
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 MoveOn.org 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 MoveOn.org. 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 MoveOn.org 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."