By Thomas E. Ricks and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 23, 2008
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said he expects to recommend additional cuts in U.S. troop levels there this fall. Petraeus said he would assess conditions before his departure in September, when he is scheduled to take over the U.S. Central Command.
"My sense is I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for further reductions," Petraeus said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday on his nomination to the post that would put him in charge of U.S. military operations from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia.
Petraeus declined to estimate the size of a troop cut. "I don't want to imply that that means a BCT [brigade combat team] or major combat formation, although it could," he said, referring to units that could total as many as several thousand troops. U.S. troop strength peaked in Iraq last year at about 165,000. Recent and already approved drawdowns are expected to bring the level to about 133,000 by the end of July.
The hearing was surprisingly low-key and relatively brief, in sharp contrast to Petraeus's last two appearances on Capitol Hill -- in September and last month -- to assess the situation in Iraq. Among those absent from the sparsely attended session was Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the committee's ranking minority member and the likely Republican presidential nominee, who was campaigning in California. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), competing for the Democratic nomination, made a brief appearance at the end of the hearing.
Lawmakers entered and left the room during the questioning as a number of bills came up for votes on the Senate floor, including the 70 to 26 approval of an additional $165 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The controversial funding passed after Republicans blocked Democratic attempts to attach a withdrawal timeline.
Appearing at a memorial ceremony at Fort Bragg, N.C., President Bush said he would continue to oppose any funding measures that would "tie the hands of our commanders." In a speech to 17,000 Army paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division, which has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush said Petraeus had done "a brilliant job" in Iraq and vowed that military commanders "will have all the resources you need to win."
Senators on both sides of the aisle appeared to agree with Bush's assessment of Petraeus, regardless of their stand on Iraq, indicating that they expect him to be confirmed easily, along with Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the nominee to replace him in Iraq.
Petraeus finessed questions on problems in his new command, from the faltering war in Afghanistan to al-Qaeda's headquarters in the tribal regions of Pakistan, saying he would await further briefings and visits to the region.
"One of the first trips I would make, if confirmed as Centcom commander, would be to Pakistan, to sit down" with the Pakistani army's chief of staff, Gen. Ashfaq Kiyani, he said. "Clearly, we have to provide additional assistance to the new Pakistani government."
When Clinton remarked that U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan had "lost the initiative, both militarily and diplomatically," Petraeus said that more coalition troops would be needed there next spring. Referring to Taliban bastions in southern Afghanistan, he said that "we may need to regain that initiative, and that may indeed take additional forces."
Echoing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Petraeus spoke at length about the need to integrate U.S. diplomatic, economic and military efforts around the world. "A number of us in uniform and Secretary Gates are among the biggest champions for providing additional resources for the State Department, for AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development] and for some of our other interagency partners," he said.
On Iran, Petraeus reiterated his testimony from last month, calling it a "destabilizing influence" in the Middle East. But he said that "the historic realities" dictated a close relationship between Iraq and Iran and that diplomatic rapprochement with Tehran should remain a U.S. goal.
Both generals offered a largely optimistic picture of Iraq, noting that the number of attacks on U.S. forces last week was the lowest in four years. But Petraeus acknowledged that Iraqi provincial elections, which the administration has been counting on as a sign of political reconciliation, were unlikely to occur on schedule in October.
Although the Iraqi parliament has agreed on the date, it has yet to pass election laws or take other steps necessary for the vote to take place. Despite the predicted delay, Petraeus said, "there's every intention to have elections in the fall."
The committee's chairman, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), said a postponement was "not good news, obviously."
Petraeus also said the Pentagon will not reach its stated objective of turning over security responsibility for all 18 provinces to the Iraqi government by the end of this year. When Bush announced a new strategy and a "surge" in U.S. forces in Iraq in January 2007, he said the turnover would be completed by the end of that year. So far, nine provinces are under Iraqi control.
Pressed by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) on what the "endpoint" of U.S. involvement in Iraq should be, Odierno said the goal is a self-reliant, stable government that can protect the country and improve citizens' lives.
"So how long do you think we should be there if those conditions are met?" Webb asked, in an apparent reference to McCain's campaign statement that U.S. troops could remain as a stabilizing force in Iraq, similar in role and number to their presence in Japan and South Korea, for up to 100 years.
Odierno deflected the question. That would be a "policy decision," he said several times.
Webb, a Marine veteran, persisted. "Do you believe that, if those conditions were met, there would be a need for United States military in Iraq?"
"I do not," Odierno finally replied.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report from Fort Bragg.