Day of Reckoning for Bush's Iraq Strategy

Gen. Petraeus, top U.S. commander in Iraq, to argue against cuts.

February 12, 2009, 8:12 AM

Sept. 10, 2007 — -- During an emotional hearing on Capitol Hill, Gen. David Petraeus, the nation's top military commander in Iraq, testified the U.S. may be able to withdraw roughly 30,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer.

Petraeus, appearing before a joint session of the House Armed Services Committee and House Foreign Relations Committee on the future of the 4-year-old Iraq War, was joined by Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq.

Petraeus testified the President's troop escalation plan in Iraq had met its military objectives "in large measure."

"I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level ... by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve," Petraeus said.

The general said a unit of 2,200 Marines and sailors from Camp LeJeune in North Carolina -- deployed as part of the President's troop escalation plan last winter-- would leave Iraq this month. Other surge units would follow, and be redeployed out of Iraq without replacement.

That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq by July 2008 -- roughly the same number of U.S. troops that were in Iraq before the President decided to dispatch additional forces.

Giving House members charts and graphs, Petraeus said there has been an overall decline in violence, though he concluded that the President's troop surge plan has made uneven military gains in Iraq.

"The level of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June of 2006," Petraeus said.

However, foreign and home-grown terrorists continue to roil the country, as does continuing sectarian violence, he said.

Petraeus said Iran and Syria and Iran continue to meddle in the nation.

During his testimony, Crocker said he "cannot guarantee success" in Iraq, but abandoning the country now would mean certain failure.

The ambassador said he was frustrated with the progress of the Iraqi government. But, he said, any significant shift away from the current strategy would embolden al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Citing progress in winning over Iraqis in the Anbar province of Iraq, Crocker said, al-Qaeda had "overplayed its hand" there.

"Anbaris began to reject its excesses, be they beheading school children or cutting off people's fingers for smoking," Crocker said.

During the hearing, the four-star general was heckled by anti-war protesters, including Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a U.S. soldier killed in Iraq.

"Tell the truth, general," they shouted. "Generals lie, children die!"

The frustrated chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., angrily called for the anti-war protesters to be forcibly taken out of the room.

"No disturbances will be tolerated," he said. "Out they go."

When Petraeus finished his testimony, more protesters stood up and shouted, "Pull out!"

The protesters were ejected from the committee room, with Skelton vowing they would be prosecuted.

One woman wearing a pink cardboard crown, screamed, "No, no, no!" resisting security guards who forcibly pulled her by the arms out of the room.

Protesters weren't the only disruption to the much-anticipated testimony.

As the general began to speak, it became clear that his microphone didn't work.

Skelton delayed the general's testimony by a few minutes so the problem could be fixed.

During opening statements, Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., said the men had come to Congress to "restore credibility to a discredited policy."

But, he said, "with all respect to you ... I don't buy it," Lantos said.

"We need to get out of Iraq, for that country's sake and for our own," Lantos said.

Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said "it's an outrage," that unnamed Democrats were attacking the general's credibility in advance of the nationally televised hearing.

Answering charges that his testimony was screened by political officials within the Bush administration, Petraeus countered, "I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress."

The general's testimony could be key to the White House's attempt to stem a rising tide of Republican dissent over Iraq.

The Democratic-led Congress currently doesn't have enough votes in Congress to force President Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq -- but that could change if more members of Congress are persuaded the President's Iraq strategy is failing.

The general came under personal attack Monday by the anti-war group, who took out an ad in The New York Times on Monday. "General Petraeus or General Betray-us?" read the ad.

"Cooking the books for the White House," it said.

Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman slammed the ad, saying in a statement, "We must reject the slander of this brave soldier and patriot." The 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate went on to call the ad "an outrageous and despicable act of slander."

White House press secretary Tony Snow also chimed in, labeling MoveOn's effort "a boorish, childish, unworthy attack," and called on members of Congress to condemn it.

"I don't want to want to insinuate that there were never conversations between General Petraeus or the White House and so on. But when it comes to this testimony, we have stayed out of it," Snow said Monday. "We have let General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker do this independently and we have not tried to play any role in shaping, in influencing, in dictating, in doing anything with regard to the content of what they do." 

While details of Petraeus' assessment of President Bush's troop escalation plan leaked in media reports last week, his actual testimony has been a closely guarded secret.

The general did not share his testimony or opening statement with the White House or Congress, according to his staff. Nor did he share his testimony with the Pentagon.

In an exclusive interview, the top military general in Iraq hinted to ABC's Martha Raddatz that his report on the status of the troop surge in Iraq would include a recommendation for troop reduction in March, if not sooner, to avoid a strain on the Army.

Monday is the first hearing on Iraq for Petraeus and Crocker, and begins a weeklong focus on the future of the Iraq conflict.

The pair are scheduled to appear in a prime-time interview with Brit Hume on Fox News Monday night, and will testify before Senate committees on Tuesday. They hold a news conference and conduct interviews with network anchors on Wednesday.

However, there is no "Petraeus report," just his testimony before Congress. The "report" is the White House's assessment of what has been done, and not done, to meet the 18 benchmarks defined in the war funding bill passed by Congress earlier this year.

The White House is expected to send that benchmark report to Congress Friday.

President Bush is expected to address the nation on Thursday to announce changes, if any, he will make to his Iraq strategy.

A top White House official tells ABC News the president's speech will outline the course of action the president plans to take in Iraq, based on the recommendations of Petraeus, other military leaders, his national security team, and congressional leaders.

Bush is also expected to offer a "broader context" in terms of the Middle East region and the long-term vision for U.S. involvement in Iraq.

He is largely expected to appeal to Congress and the nation that his troop escalation plan has helped to secure the country, and the nation needs to stay the course in Iraq.

To boost his case, Bush made a surprise visit to an air base in Anbar, Iraq last week. Bush called the area one of the safest places in the country.

Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki told the Iraqi Congress Monday that Iraq's forces are not ready to take control of the country's security.

Bush has made clear that the ability of the Iraqi government to secure the country is a key requirement before any significant U.S. troop withdrawal can begin.

We need "more efforts and time," Maliki told Congress.

In addition, a new ABC News polls finds Iraqis bleak about their future.

Forty-seven percent of Iraqis now favor an immediate pullout of U.S. troops, according to the poll co-sponsored by BBC News and NHK-Japan, and conducted face to face in more than 2,200 households across Iraq.

Many Iraqis said they do not believe their security has improved. In fact, 65 percent to 70 percent of Iraqis said the surge actually has made things worse.

The poll also found Iraqis are losing confidence in their own national government. Most said the living conditions are worse now than before the war.

There is consensus among the military leadership about beginning the drawdown of the surge but beyond that there is some real tension about the way forward.

The Joint Chiefs, particularly Army Chief of Staff George Casey, and CENTCOM have argued for a quicker reduction in U.S. force levels and to change the central mission.

The current counterinsurgency mission is for U.S. troops to protect the population through means such as patrolling the streets and having a visible presence in the neighborhoods.

Casey and CENTCOM commander Adm. William "Fox" Fallon have argued that the central mission should be training and supporting the Iraqi troops. Petraeus' staff has dismissed this as the "been-there-done-that" strategy.

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