By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008 9:37 AM
In a reprise of their testimony last September, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker came to Capitol Hill today to tell lawmakers that security has improved in Iraq and that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken steps toward political reconciliation and economic stability.
But unlike in September, when that news was fresh and the administration said a corner had been turned, even some of the war's strongest supporters in Congress have grown impatient and frustrated. Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Crocker are facing many lawmakers today and tomorrow who had expected more by now and who are wondering whether any real change will occur before the clock runs out on the Bush administration.
"I think all of us realize we're disappointed at where we are," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said at a hearing last week. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) asked, "How do we get out of this mess?" While the cost in U.S. lives and money increases, said another senior GOP senator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity: "We cannot . . . just say we're coasting through and waiting for the next president."
Among the questions these and other lawmakers said they plan to ask Petraeus and Crocker is why the United States is still paying for Iraqi domestic needs ranging from military training to garbage pickup when the Maliki government has $30 billion in reserves -- held in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the Bank for International Settlements in Switzerland -- as well as $10 billion in a development fund, significant budgetary surpluses from previous years and a projected 7 percent economic growth rate for 2008.
Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), the panel's ranking Republican, who projected that Iraqi oil income would reach $56.4 billion this year, asked the Government Accountability Office last month to investigate how much money the Iraqi government has.
"I think it's a very significant issue that has not had sufficient exposure," Levin said in an interview. "They're perfectly content to watch us spend our money while they build up these huge cash reserves from oil windfalls. It's a real stick in our eye, as far as I'm concerned."
Charles P. Ries, Crocker's deputy for economic policy in Baghdad, said in an e-mail that both the Iraqi constitution and Iraq's arrangement with the International Monetary Fund prohibit spending the nation's reserves. The amount in Iraq's accounts, he said, is not "abnormally high to back up the dinar, given the size of the economy and their dependence on a single commodity for most of export revenues."
Although the United States has spent nearly all of the approximately $21 billion appropriated for Iraqi reconstruction since 2003, $500 million has been budgeted annually for the past three years for the Commander's Emergency Response Program, distributed by U.S. officers on the ground for local development efforts.
Despite considerable U.S. expenditures on oil and electricity infrastructure, oil exports and the supply of electricity and other services have not risen significantly since 2004. In early April, according to State Department statistics, the electricity supply met 58 percent of demand, compared with 66 percent a year earlier. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported last month that "millions of Iraqis have insufficient access to clean water, sanitation and health care."
Lawmakers said they want to question Petraeus about the performance of Iraqi security forces in last week's military engagement between government forces and the Mahdi Army militia of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra. The fighting, along with continued intra-Shiite fighting in Baghdad that killed at least four U.S. soldiers over the weekend, has complicated efforts to portray Iraq as moving toward stability.
Although the administration has put a positive face on the offensive -- describing it as evidence that Maliki's government and the Iraqi military are capable of independent, decisive action -- U.S. military and administration officials privately draw a more mixed picture. They judge Iraqi forces, despite five years of U.S. training, as ill prepared for the mission, which lacked cohesive planning and ultimately ended in a draw, at best, with the Sadrists. U.S. air power was called in to back flailing government forces three days into the operation.
A senior U.S. officer in Iraq described Maliki's action as "both bold and impulsive/hasty." While some Iraqi troops "fought well," he wrote in an e-mail, others were "largely ineffective." Up to 1,000 army and police personnel reportedly either deserted or refused to fight. In the National Police, which is known to be sympathetic to Sadr, "hundreds" of officers were fired, one administration official said.
The most "positive spin I can put on it," the official said, is that "the Iraqi Army didn't cut and run." The Mahdi Army, also known as Jaish al-Mahdi, or JAM, "did not prevail. Did the Iraqi Army rout JAM? No."
Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.), a leading backer of President Bush's strategy and the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, one of four panels for which Petraeus and Crocker will testify over two days, said "I want to see the specifics" of Iraqi military performance."
Petraeus is expected to cite Iranian assistance to Mahdi Army forces as another reason to carefully consider any further troop withdrawals. But U.S. intelligence officials have noted that Iran has also provided training and weapons to all Shiite militias, including those allied with Maliki. "One reality of Basra is that you have Iranian-influenced organizations fighting each other," said one intelligence official. "On multiple levels, Iran has its hooks" in all of them, the official added.
While Crocker is expected to point to Iraq's passage of militia amnesty and a reversal of de-Baathification laws, along with legislation to authorize provincial elections in October, the Maliki government remains gridlocked on electoral procedures that must be agreed upon as well as on new oil legislation. At least one-quarter of cabinet seats remain vacant or are only nominally filled.
At the same time, the government has not responded to U.S. demands that it speed up the process of incorporating members of the largely Sunni "Sons of Iraq" into the official security forces or establishing a comprehensive employment program for them. Nearly 90,000 members of the all-volunteer force, which the administration has touted as evidence that Sunnis have turned against the insurgency, remain on the U.S. payroll.
Crocker has frequently used the metaphor of a ticking timepiece to warn against unreasonable U.S. expectations for Iraqi political movement. Washington's clock, he says, moves far faster than Baghdad's. But lawmakers raised concerns that the administration has made too few demands on Iraq. With the possibility of a Democratic administration that may quickly withdraw troops, and as Bush negotiates a new strategic framework for the U.S. military in Iraq, they argued, the president's leverage with Maliki has never been higher.
"The debate over how much progress we have made in the last year may be less illuminating than determining whether the administration is finally defining a clear political-military strategy," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Stability gains garnered by an increase in U.S. troops last year "are very nice to have," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), "but essentially they're meaningless. We're going to try to get Petraeus to look at the broader sense of 'What does this all mean?' You've got this temporary gain in security, so where do you go? What is it that's going to make [the Iraqis] face up to the time when we leave?"
Warner said he wants to ask Petraeus for a better answer to the question the senator posed in September: Is the administration's strategy in Iraq "making America safer"? Petraeus, Warner recalled, replied "I don't know."
This time, Warner said, he wants "a full and complete answer which will justify the sacrifice and courage that our troops have shown since his last appearance."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman and Walter Pincus contributed to this report.