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This round, Pentagon may keep General Petraeus offstage

As his next report on troop levels nears, senior officers aren't sure they'll agree.

By Gordon LuboldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2008

Shifting focus: Gen. David Petraeus testified on Capitol Hill on May 22 before the Senate Armed Services committee.

Susan Walsh/AP

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Days before the top US commander in Iraq gives his official assessment on troop levels there, a high-level move is afoot to keep Gen. David Petraeus out of the political spotlight. Many senior Pentagon officials want to shift public and lawmaker attention away from Iraq to Afghanistan.

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Widely credited with improving security in Iraq, General Petraeus will soon recommend reducing troops there from perhaps a handful of support troops to as many as two combat brigades.

Members of Congress have requested that Petraeus make another appearance on Capitol Hill, sure to draw the kind of attention that a visit from the high-profile general engenders. The Defense Department has refused that request, ostensibly because of scheduling issues. But as the Pentagon struggles to muster more troops for Afghanistan, officials worry that the general's testimony on Iraq will upstage other needs.

Petraeus is expected to be cautious on troop drawdown, not wanting to lose a hard-won security despite pressure from some colleagues to free up forces for Afghanistan.

Officials also want to prevent any testimony he would provide from becoming political fodder as both sides would grope to use his testimony to their advantage.

"The Hill respects him and they also expect to use him," says one retired senior officer who did not want to comment publicly on the sensitive matter.

Differing views on Iraq

Last week, Gen. James Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, made a public plea for some of his 25,000 marines in Anbar Province in Iraq, to be redeployed home so the service can send more Marines to Afghanistan as soon as early next year.

Once the core of the Sunni insurgency, Anbar has been quiet for more than a year. But there has been resistance within the American command in Baghdad to redeploy those marines in any significant number.

General Conway was as blunt as he was politic in his public statement, essentially taking Petraeus to task for his caution in redeploying troops out of Iraq.

"He's the first four-star who has openly challenged Dave Petraeus's view of Iraq," says one official close to the debate on troop levels within the government.

Earlier, under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, some in uniform griped that they didn't have enough power to successfully run the war. Under Defense Secretary Robert Gates, generals have been given more authority.