By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 9, 2008
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus returned to Congress yesterday seeking more time to consolidate security gains in Iraq by halting withdrawals of U.S. forces this summer, all but guaranteeing that about 140,000 troops will remain at least through the fall presidential election.
During a day of hearings against the backdrop of a heated campaign for the White House, Petraeus called security in Iraq "significantly better" than before last year's troop buildup but still "fragile and reversible." He plans a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" after the reinforcements leave in July, followed by an indefinite period of assessment before any further drawdown.
The testimony before two Senate committees offered another marker in the nation's five-year-old engagement in Iraq and drew complaints from Democrats and some Republicans about a war that they said seems to have no end. President Bush made no comment on it yesterday but teared up at a White House ceremony awarding the Medal of Honor to a Navy SEAL who died in Iraq. He plans to address the nation tomorrow, when aides expect him to adopt Petraeus's plan.
"Withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year," Petraeus testified. In the face of skeptical questioning, he added later: "We have the forces that we need right now, I believe. We've got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular, and we need to keep it there."
The appearances by Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker served as a sequel to their status report in September, delivered as Bush's troop buildup was starting to take hold. But this time, the hearings also provided a forum for the three presidential candidates to wage a proxy debate about the future of the war.
Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, used one hearing to lambaste what he called the "reckless and irresponsible withdrawal" plans of his Democratic rivals, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Clinton later fired back, suggesting it would be irresponsible to perpetuate "the same failed policy." Obama called again for a withdrawal timetable, saying the United States may have to accept "a messy, sloppy status quo" as long as there are not "huge outbreaks of violence."
The plan Petraeus outlined yesterday may renew the war debate at the height of the general-election campaign this fall. The last of the 20,000 combat troops Bush sent last year are due to leave Iraq by mid-July, so the 45-day consolidation period would last until early September. Petraeus repeatedly declined to say how long he would then need to decide whether to bring more troops out, but he would be deliberating in the weeks before Election Day.
Because it takes a couple of months to withdraw a combat unit once a decision is made, Petraeus's plan means no further significant troop drawdown would take place until November, at the earliest, and yesterday's testimony fueled suspicions about whether any major pullouts would happen during the remainder of Bush's presidency. Petraeus jousted with lawmakers all day to avoid being pinned down on how long the suspension of troop withdrawals would last. "I'm not using the word 'brief' nor the word 'pause,' " he said.
Petraeus and Crocker returned to Capitol Hill a day before the five-year anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's monumental statue in Baghdad. Yet despite the declining violence of recent months and their upbeat report, they ran into deep doubts about the prospect for reconciliation among Iraqi factions.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) noted a recent spate of American deaths, including in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. "There's, it seems to me, some disconnect in the abstraction that we're dealing with today," he said.
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) vowed to introduce legislation making additional reconstruction funding a loan for Iraq to repay.
"Isn't it time for Iraqis to bear more of those expenses?" asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).
"The American people have had it up to here," exclaimed Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio).
"I appreciate the sense of frustration that you articulate," Crocker said. "I share it. I kind of live it every day. I mean, the reality is, it is hard in Iraq. And there are no light switches to throw that are going to go dark to light."
During the two hearings, all eyes were on the three presidential candidates. As the Armed Services Committee's ranking Republican, McCain was the first to speak during that panel's session, using his statement to deliver a full-throated argument for staying in Iraq: "Should the United States instead choose to withdraw from Iraq before adequate security is established, we will exchange for this victory a defeat that is terrible and long-lasting."
But during questioning, McCain took a tougher tack, asking Petraeus and Crocker: Why did more than 1,000 members of the Iraqi security forces desert or underperform in confronting Shiite militias in Basra days ago? Why are rockets landing with deadly accuracy in the Green Zone?
McCain left it to his allies to take the debate to his opponents. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) pressed Petraeus to describe what would happen if the United States were to pull out, as Obama and Clinton advocate. Petraeus ducked, saying it would depend on ground conditions. Graham pressed harder: "At this point in time, does that seem to be a responsible position to take?" Petraeus again avoided a direct answer.
Clinton did not get her turn for another 2 1/2 hours, but when it came she promptly responded to assertions that withdrawal would be irresponsible. "I fundamentally disagree," she said. "Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again at such tremendous cost."
Obama's turn came near the end of the day, during the Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Although "the surge has reduced violence," he said, Iraqis have not done enough to take advantage.
He then asked what constitutes victory. "I'm trying to get to an endpoint," Obama said. If the goal for Iraq is set too high, U.S. forces could be there for decades, he said. "If on the other hand," he said, "our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence -- there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaeda base -- that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable time frame."
While Bush ostensibly stayed out of yesterday's discussion, the White House made sure to play a role. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, and Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, the war coordinator, went to Capitol Hill to brief Senate Republicans before the hearings. And just as Bush gave the Medal of Honor to a war hero the day after announcing his troop-buildup strategy in January 2007, he gave another one yesterday.
The East Room ceremony honoring Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael A. Monsoor was emotional. Bush wiped tears from his eyes and put his arm around Monsoor's family as the SEAL's death was recounted -- he threw himself onto a grenade to save two fellow SEALs. "We see his legacy in the city of Ramadi," Bush said, "which has gone from one of the most dangerous places in Iraq to one of the most safest."