The General's Long View Could Cut Withdrawal Debate Short

By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If Gen. David H. Petraeus has his way, tens of thousands of U.S. troops will be in Iraq for years to come.

Iraq's armed forces are improving, Petraeus told Congress yesterday. Overall violence is down. Sunnis are turning against al-Qaeda in Iraq, and many Baghdad neighborhoods are more peaceful. Political reconciliation, said Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who testified alongside the general, is a now-visible light at the end of the tunnel. But the two men offered no clear pathway or timeline to reach the end.

Petraeus and Crocker have long complained that the Washington clock -- with congressional demands that the time has come for Iraqis to take over their security and reconcile their political differences -- is running far faster than the one in Baghdad. Yesterday, they tried to slow Washington down.

"The process will not be quick," Crocker emphasized. "It will be uneven, punctuated by setbacks as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment. There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory; any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect."

Judging by the relatively mild congressional reaction in a joint hearing of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees, Petraeus and Crocker may well succeed this week in deflecting Democratic demands to bring the troops home sooner rather than later. They are likely to face tougher questioning -- and stiffer challenges to the emerging trends they described -- from two Senate committees today. But by the time President Bush speaks to the nation later this week, September's much-anticipated battle over Iraq policy may be all but over.

Some Democrats sought to challenge the general. "The administration has sent you here today to convince [Congress] . . . that victory is at hand," Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (Calif.) said in an opening statement. "With all due respect," he told Petraeus, "I don't buy it."

Others invoked the Vietnam War, a historical analogy that Bush has recently used to make his case in favor of the Iraq war. "Twenty years from now, when we build the Iraq war memorial on the National Mall, how many more men and women will have been sacrificed to protect our so-called credibility?" asked Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). "How many more names will be added to the wall before we admit it is time to leave? How many more names, General?"

Republicans countered by citing the threats from al-Qaeda and Iran, and defended Petraeus's honor against criticism from antiwar activists.

"The enemy . . . did not count on the United States regaining the initiative and going on the offensive throughout this strategy behind the surge," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Fla.). "This strategy has driven a wedge between al-Qaeda and the Sunni population, and that will help drive a similar wedge between the Shia extremists."

Petraeus refused to take the partisan bait from either side, taking a classic soldier's stance of just giving the facts as he sees them. He did not seek to defend the much-debated reasons for invading Iraq or the conduct of the war before he took command of U.S. forces in February.

Nor did he cast the war in terms the White House is fond of using -- a global fight against terrorism, where failure would threaten the U.S. homeland. Iran and al-Qaeda in Iraq are both problems, Petraeus said. But "the fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources."

In his opening testimony, Petraeus offered something for those seeking troop reductions. He said he has recommended to Bush that one Marine unit in Iraq leave soon, and that one of 20 Army brigades depart around Christmas and not be replaced. Next, Petraeus said, he will endorse sending home four more brigades by next summer -- a move that would return U.S. forces to the pre-"surge" level of about 130,000 and one that has long been expected because no replacement troops would be available.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company