Petraeus, Crocker try to buy time for US efforts in Iraq

Their mostly upbeat testimony probably gives Bush some political space, but the reports aren't likely to result in broad political consensus.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The report from Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, was not all good, but for him, progress in reducing violence in the months of the "surge" warrants keeping higher numbers of US troops there and following the current strategy until summer 2008.

Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, had the tougher task of convincing a dubious Congress and nation that the Iraqi government is capable of achieving the political progress the surge was designed to facilitate. He gave a bureaucratic and colorless assessment of Iraqi political capabilities – and may have advanced the case of those who want to see a new course.

The two officials, bookends of the US military-political strategy in Iraq, came to Congress Monday for the first of two days of testimony to buy more time for the US engagement in Iraq. With no sign of the Republican exodus from President Bush's Iraq policy that Democrats anticipated earlier this summer, the likelihood now seems good they'll be able to make the purchase.

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General Petraeus, armed with stacks of charts and maps on the impact of the surge, said in Monday afternoon testimony that he would recommend withdrawing one Army brigade – about 4,000 troops – in December, to be followed by a further partial drawdown that would return US troop numbers in Iraq to 130,000 by July 2008. That's about where US force numbers stood when Mr. Bush announced the troop-buildup strategy in January. Petraeus also recommended that Bush wait until March of next year to make decisions about force levels for later in 2008.

The essentially upbeat testimony and prospects for some drawdown of troops probably gives Bush the political space he needs to avoid a battle with Congress over Iraq, while leaving to the next president decisions on long-term Iraq policy. But that doesn't mean this week's reports are likely to result in broad political consensus.

"What [Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker] made the case for is more squabbling," says Wayne White, until recently an Iraq expert at the State Department and now an adjunct scholar with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

"There was enough there if you're not a skeptic to bolster the view that progress in being made," he says. "But if you are, you just might have come away with the feeling that we're being snookered."

Petraeus's data obscure a number of "ground truths," Mr. White says – about continuing violence and ethno-sectarian cleansing in Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods, and about the unaddressed threat of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia. As for national reconciliation, he says, some US action under the surge – working more closely with Sunni tribes, for example – is actually "a step backward" from the goal of national political unity, though it may serve other US interests.

The Petraeus-Crocker team, appearing Monday afternoon before a joint session of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, arrived from Baghdad to encounter a Congress wearing its deep divisions over Iraq on its sleeve. The two go before the Senate Tuesday.

At the same time, fresh public-opinion surveys underscored that the lead-up to the much-awaited reports on Iraq – which included a surprise trip by Bush to Iraq last week – did not sway the US public from its desire for a timetable to end the US war in Iraq.

Several new polls out in the hours preceding the congressional testimony showed that while Americans trust military leaders more than the White House or Congress to guide Iraq policy, a majority continues to want a plan for drawing down the US troop presence in Iraq. Going into today's progress report, a majority believes the surge of 30,000 additional US troops has failed in its goals.

A Gallup Poll for USA Today found that 60 percent of Americans – a record for the poll – want the government to set a timetable for withdrawing forces and to stick to it regardless of conditions on the ground in Iraq.

But the Petraeus-Crocker reports, especially as they continue Tuesday and lead into an address to the nation by Bush later this week, could have an impact on public opinion, some experts believe.

"Many in Congress have made up their minds and will hear what they want to hear. But I do think the Petraeus-Crocker testimony could have an impact on public opinion," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "That could be the biggest net effect – public opinion rather than congressional opinion."

Public opinion often lags behind trends taking place, Mr. Phillips says, emphasizing that the surge only reached full strength in June. "The changed situation on the ground will take time to percolate into public consciousness," he says. "But something like all the attention to this testimony will help move that along."

Cognizant of polls that for some time now have shown a majority of Americans favoring a timetable for withdrawal, Phillips says this week's testimony will "heighten understanding of the costs and risks involved with setting a timetable."

He cites two points that Petraeus made: that a hasty US withdrawal could lead to a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq, or to a resurgence of Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in areas of the country they have abandoned. These are two scenarios that could force the United States to "go back in," Phillips says.

In his testimony, Crocker appeared to make the case that the surge strategy had pulled Iraq back from the precipice of collapse and full-blown civil war. He said Iraq in 2006 "came close to unraveling politically, economically, and in security terms." But 2007 "has brought improvement" that Crocker said was evident in political as well as in security terms. He also mentioned a list of economic gains.

Such a sanguine assessment surprised some observers, who thought the two officials might indicate a broader opening to change in US strategy as a way to win support among those opposed to the current course. The testimony "was really less mixed than I thought it would be," says White of the Middle East Institute. "In the face of that kind of thinking, it's hard to imagine where there's going to be any change."

White says he heard too little assessment of the risks that could lie ahead in some of the directions US policy has taken. Concerning the creation of armed units in Anbar Province to help fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, he says, "One of the problems is that these are people who will not work with this central government. So what are the implications for the national unity we say we want?"

During the opening of the day's testimony, the deep divisions in the US Congress on Iraq were on full display. The Democratic chairmen of the two committees focused on the failure of the Iraqi government to take advantage of the surge to move toward national reconciliation.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said US troops had paved the way for Iraq to make a political "touchdown," but he concluded, "The Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball."

Ranking Republican members focused on Iraq's place in the war on terror, as well as on what they called Democratic attacks on Petraeus's credibility and suggestions that his testimony was not independent from the White House.

Representative Skelton countered the Republican broadsides by saying Petraeus was "almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he's the right person three years too late and 250,00 troops short."

Yet by the end of the hearings Monday, Skelton said he was dissatisfied with the assessments offered by the representatives of US policy in Iraq, and "very disappointed" with the Iraqis' failure to "step up to the plate" – two conclusions that may color the ongoing Iraq policy review, even if they don't end up changing it.

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