Analysis

Hazy plan for Iraq emerges

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, testified before two Senate committees Tuesday in Washington.

Associated Press

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, testified before two Senate committees Tuesday in Washington.

General's plan for war in Iraq

The top U.S. commander in Iraq told Congress on Tuesday that hard-won gains in the war zone are too fragile to promise any troop pullouts beyond this summer. Army Gen. David Petraeus said he has recommended to President Bush that he complete, by the end of July, the withdrawal of about 30,000 extra "surge" troops. Beyond that, he proposed a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation," to be followed by an indefinite period of assessment before he would recommend any further pullouts. The Petraeus plan, which Bush is expected to embrace, leaves open the possibility that roughly 140,000 U.S. troops could remain in Iraq when the president leaves office next year. Bush will make a speech Thursday about the war, now in its sixth year, and his decision about troop levels.

Times wires

WASHINGTON — Asked repeatedly Tuesday what "conditions" he is looking for to begin substantial U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq after this summer's scheduled drawdown, Army Gen. David Petraeus said he will know them when he sees them. For frustrated lawmakers, it was not enough.

"A year ago, the president said we couldn't withdraw because there was too much violence," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. "Now he says we can't afford to withdraw because violence is down."

Asked Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.: "Where do we go from here?"

Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said, "I think people want a sense of what the end is going to look like."

But the bottom line was that there was no bottom line. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker echoed what they said seven months ago in their last update to Congress, often using similar words. Iraq's armed forces continue to improve, overall levels of violence are lower than they were last year, and political reconciliation is happening, albeit still more slowly than they would like.

"Iraq is hard, and reconciliation is hard," Crocker said in September. He added Tuesday, "Almost everything about Iraq is hard."

The two men danced around the question of what constitutes success in Iraq.

"As I've explained, again, from a military perspective," Petraeus said, "… what we want to do is to look at conditions and determine where it is without taking undue risks. This is all about risk."

"We'll look at the circumstances and assess," Crocker said.

Petraeus and Crocker repeated warnings that al-Qaida in Iraq, while weakened, remains a threat. But they described an ongoing U.S. troop presence as necessary largely because no one is certain that security gains will endure if U.S. forces leave. The consequences of withdrawal, Crocker said, "could be grave."

What worked in September — an overall sense of progress that gave the Bush administration additional time to pursue its "surge" policy of sending nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq — sparked little enthusiasm this time among lawmakers. Much of their frustration appeared to stem from a realization that there was little they could do to affect policy in the administration's final nine months.

Petraeus said he has recommended to President Bush that the planned withdrawal of the five "surge" combat brigades by the end of July be followed by a 45-day hiatus for "consolidation and evaluation." Then, Petraeus said, he would begin "a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground" and determine whether to recommend further reductions.

The scheduled withdrawals, Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., said dismissively, are "just the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy."

But several Republicans praised Petraeus, Crocker and the administration's policy.

"We are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. Instead, the presumed GOP presidential nominee said that "success is within reach."

McCain hedged his bets with other tough questions but left it to others to throw their support behind administration policy.

"According to some, we should fire you," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told the witnesses. "It sounds like … really nothing good has happened in the last year and this is a hopeless endeavor. Well, I beg to differ."

Graham and others opened the door for Petraeus and Crocker to match White House rhetoric on the ongoing threat from al-Qaida in Iraq and the rising menace of Iran. But while Petraeus noted that the recent Iraqi government offensive in Basra against an Iranian-backed Shiite militia illustrated Tehran's malign influence, Crocker repeated something he said in September: Iran is up to no good in Iraq, but its role is limited by deep Arab Iraqi antipathy.

Both Petraeus and Crocker described the Basra operation as a positive demonstration of Iraqi sovereignty and military determination, though one with operational flaws. Petraeus confirmed that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had rejected his advice to delay the offensive until Iraqi troops were better prepared.

"There is no question that it could have been better planned," Petraeus said. He agreed that the 1,000 Iraqi army troops and police who either deserted or refused to fight were "a disappointment." But, he added, thousands of others had fought well, particularly in other areas of southern Iraq where simultaneous violence also broke out.

Hazy plan for Iraq emerges 04/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, April 10, 2008 5:41pm]

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