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.
Fallon, currently head of the Pentagon's Pacific Command, has pursued a nuanced approach to Chinese leaders who are aggressively rebuilding their military. He has traveled deeper into China than his predecessors and blended cooperation, including joint military exercises with the Chinese, with the implicit threat of military force, moving more carriers and bombers westward to Hawaii and Guam.
Both Petraeus and Fallon are expected to shift the emphasis of military operations in Iraq to win the security, and as a result the "hearts and minds," of Iraqis.
Petraeus supports President Bush's plan to move 17,500 additional troops into the capital of Baghdad in an effort to reduce residents' reliance on factional militias for security.
But Bush administration officials say they have also secured promises from the administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that the Americans would not be barred from entering such Shiite strongholds as the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City. That has been a problem in the past, as U.S. forces were barred by Maliki from pursuing suspected Shiite Muslim death squads as they fled to safe havens in Sadr City.
That puts Maliki in an especially difficult position. His Shiite-dominated governing coalition won with the support of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who nominally controls the Mahdi Army militia that is blamed for much of the factional violence in the capital.
The questioning of Petraeus often grew sharp in criticizing the Bush administration and his policy of increasing American troop levels in Iraq.
"We are in a dire situation," said Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, a Democratic presidential candidate, "in part because the Congress was supine under the Republican majority."
Nevertheless, senators were uniformly complimentary and respectful in addressing Petraeus, differentiating him from a Bush policy he would be required to oversee.
"You wrote the book, general, but the policy is not by the book," Clinton added.
Clinton called the policy of increasing troops "a dead end" and vowed to send a message to the Iraqis that they "cannot rely on the blood and treasure of Americans any longer."
The new general's plan to secure Baghdad threatens to increase casualties because a larger number of American troops would be more exposed. Petraeus said to secure Baghdad's population, "forces must locate with and live with that population."
He added, "certainly there will be soldiers literally on the road, there will be soldiers on the streets and so forth."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another presidential contender, asked Petraeus about congressional measures that would express the view of Congress that troop increases are the wrong policy and others that would actually bar funding for more troops.
"Suppose we send you over to your new job, general, only we tell you that we can't have -- you can't have any additional troops. Can you get your job done?," McCain asked.
"No, sir," Petraeus replied.