President Bush's pick as the new top commander on the ground in Iraq today offered a dour assessment of the war, calling the situation dire and making no promises of success.
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus told senators in his first appearance in a Capitol Hill hearing since being nominated as the four-star commander in Iraq that factional violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in Iraq has increased significantly since the bombing this past February of the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, the third-holiest Shiite shrine.
"The escalation of violence in 2006 undermined the coalition strategy and raised the prospect of a failed Iraqi state, an outcome that would be in no group's interest, save that of certain extremist organizations and perhaps states in the region that wish Iraq and the [United] States ill," Petraeus told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"In truth, no one can predict the impact of a failed Iraq on regional stability, the international economy, the global war on terror, America's standing in the world and the lives of the Iraqi people," he said.
"The situation in Iraq is dire. The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard."
Nevertheless, he added "hard is not hopeless."
Petraeus is widely considered a leading intellectual light in the Army. He is expected to be easily confirmed, with even Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., saying that while he strenuously disagrees with the Bush administration's plan to "escalate" the war in Iraq by adding another 21,000 troops, he intended to vote to approve Petraeus.
"None of this will be rapid. In fact, the way ahead will be neither quick nor easy, and there undoubtedly will be tough days," Petraeus said. "We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy. He will try to wait us out. In fact, any such endeavor is a test of wills, and there are no guarantees."
The general indicated he could not ensure success.
"The only assurance I can give you is that if confirmed, I will provide Multinational Force - Iraq the best leadership and direction I can muster," Petraeus said. "I will work to ensure unity of effort with the ambassador and our Iraqi and coalition partners; and I will provide my bosses and you with forthright, professional military advice."
Petraeus assured members that if he concluded that the current strategy would not succeed, "I will provide you with that assessment."
If approved, he will enter his third tour of duty in Iraq, after joining the initial invasion in 2003 as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division, then returning as the three-star head of training of Iraqi troops.
He would also be charged with carrying out a counterinsurgency doctrine set out in a new Army manual that Petraeus developed from the Army's doctrine and training command at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Those close to Petraeus have expressed disappointment that the region he controlled in northern Iraq, centered on Mosul, went from passive to explosive after the 101st left in 2004. Many blame the style of his successor, who they say antagonized Iraqis with a "death before dismount" approach that ended the close engagement with Iraqis Petraeus sought to pursue.
If confirmed by the Senate, as required, Petraeus would serve under a like-minded commander. President Bush has named Adm. William Fallon as his choice to head the U.S. Central Command.