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Why Iraq troop drawdown is likely to stop in July

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will describe Iraq's fragile state this week on Capitol Hill.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 7, 2008


The two top US officials in IraqGen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker – are on Capitol Hill this week to report on the Iraq war, but expectations are low that US policy will change much before the end of the year and the arrival of America's next president.

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That's not just because General Petraeus has indicated he will recommend against a further drawdown of US forces beyond the level they are programmed to hit at midsummer. It is also the case because, despite security gains of the past year, Iraq is expected to remain in a fragile state for the rest of President Bush's term.

Several factors could contribute in coming months to unstable conditions on the ground:

•Sunni disappointment with the US and the Shiite-dominated government over the rate at which Sunnis are being integrated into the Iraqi Army or being provided with other jobs.

•Power struggles among Iraq's dominant Shiite groups and militias, particularly in the south. Recent fighting in Basra is a case in point.

•Evidence that Iraqi security forces are not ready to take over military operations from the US and coalition forces.

•Intensifying political jockeying in the run-up to provincial elections set for fall.

•Signs that Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated Islamic extremists are establishing a last-stand stronghold in the north – as well as expectations that Al Qaeda in Iraq, especially, will try to make violent statements that coincide with the US elections.

•Questions about how Iran will use its considerable influence in Iraq as both Iraq and the US traverse electoral periods.

"We're definitely going to hear a lot from [Petraeus and Mr. Crocker] about what our military strategy has accomplished and how there still needs to be more political progress," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at The National Defense University here. "But there's a lot of risk and uncertainty – for the Iraqis, for our role in Iraq, for our elections, so I don't see it as a period when we're going to see much change in the way of strategy."

The status quo may not sit well with Congress, but the Democrats, especially, may not have any more ability than they did last fall, after the last Petraeus-Crocker hearings, to force changes. Some Democratic strategists say little is expected of this week's Iraq hearings, as the focus is on the next administration.

But even if the economy has supplanted Iraq as Americans' top concern, a holding pattern for the next 10 months is not acceptable for US interests, for Iraq, for the region, or for the troops, some lawmakers insist.

"What is the policy from here?" asks Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that will hear from Petraeus and Crocker Tuesday. "Is [the Bush administration] intending to bind the next administration? ... I truly believe the president's plan is to muddle through and to hand it off to the next president," he adds. "I don't think they know what to do."