Monday, September 10, 2007

Petraeus: Drawdown in Iraq to Pre-Surge Levels Could Come Next Summer

The head of Multinational Forces in Iraq predicted a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq by next summer to pre-surge levels, but Gen. David Petraeus would not offer numbers beyond July 2008. "I believe that we will be able to reduce our force to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we've fought so hard to achieve," Petraeus told a joint hearing of Congress on Monday.

Petraeus said the number of "security incidents" and civilian deaths in Iraq is on the decline and the number of Iraqi forces standing up to fight has increased in the last 12 weeks. He said the overall number of security incidents in the last two weeks was at the lowest levels since June 2006.

"As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," Petraeus said, adding that "Iraqi elements have been standing and fighting and sustaining tough losses, and they have been taking the lead in operations in many areas."

Petraeus told a packed committee room that the tribal rejection of Al Qaeda in Anbar province has spread to other areas of the country and while competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources continues, the issue is whether "competition takes place more or less violently" in the coming months.

Petraeus warned, however, that Iran is trying to turn its Al-Quds force into a Hezbollah-like force to try to disrupt success in Iraq.

Petraeus was testifying with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker at a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees. The progress report on benchmarks in Iraq was required in legislation enacted after President Bush announced a troop surge in January. Bush is expected to follow their two days of testimony with an announcement indicating his plans for the nearly 170,000 troops based in Iraq.

At the start of Monday's hearing, the head of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, praised Petraeus as the right man for the job of cleaning up Iraq, but said his call to service has come too late in the war to be helpful.

"He's almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he's the right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short," said Skelton, D-Mo. "If we had your vision and approach, General, early on, we might not have gotten to the point where our troops are caught in the midst of brutal sectarian fighting without the Iraqi government bridging the political divides that drive the violence.

"The surge was intended to provide breathing space ... while our troops are holding back the opposing team to let them make a touchdown, the Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball," Skelton continued.

Democrats opposed to an ongoing military surge have already labeled the report unreliable and suggested that Petraeus and Crocker were sent to convince Congress that victory is at hand when it is not.

"With all due respect to you, I must say, I don't buy it," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif.

Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that everyone wants Petraeus to succeed, but he is working against not only insurgents in Iraq but public opinion at home.

"Every single one of us wants you to succeed in your efforts to the maximum possible extent," he said. "Our witnesses have been sent here this morning to restore credibility to a discredited policy. We, the American people, already know that the situation in Iraq is grim, and the growing majority of this Congress and the American people want our troops out."

Republican lawmakers began their hearing by excoriating liberal interest group for running a full-page ad in The New York Times Monday calling the general "General Betray Us" and suggesting Petraeus was "cooking the books" to make the situation in Iraq to sound better than it is.

"I am distressed by the accusations leveled by some in the media and by some members of Congress during hearings like these calling into question the integrity of our military, accusing the military of cherry-picking positive numbers to reflect a dramatic decline in sectarian violence," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "Some in Congress accuse you, General Petraeus, of presenting a report that is simply White House propaganda. I have more respect for the military and for the military leaders' regard for the men and women whom they lead to believe that you would misrepresent the facts and alter conclusions to serve partisan purposes."

In response to accusations that his testimony was crafted by partisans at the White House or elsewhere, Petraeus said no one had seen his statement to Congress until the moment he began speaking.

"This is my testimony, although I have briefed my assessment and recommendations to my chain of command, I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress until it was just handed outm: he said.

Just as the hearing started, protesters, including antiwar poster child Cindy Sheehan and her sister Dee Dee Miller, were arrested outside the hearing room. Rev. Lennox Yearwood, founder of The Hip Hop Caucus, was also arrested and injured during an encounter with police.

Yearwood contends that it was his turn to enter the hearing room but police refused him entry. Witnesses on the scene said at least five officers "football tackled" him, prompting an ankle injury that warranted a response from D.C. Fire and Emergency.

Another protester arrested for disrupting the hearing was CodePink member Desiree Fairooz. She and another protester were kicked out of the room by Chairman Skelton for shouting in the opening seconds of the hearing.

The hearing was also interrupted when Petraeus was about to speak but his microphone wasn't working. During the lull as committee staff tried to sort out the technical malfunction, Skelton and Indiana Republican Rep. Dan Burton got into a tiff over allowing potential protesters to remain.

"I see a number of people in the audience that I anticipate will be making a disturbance, and if this occurs during the testimony by our honored guest, I hope you will be very firm and get them out of here," Burton said.

"You don't have to lecture me on it. They'll be gone," Skelton responded.

"Well, I still see them out there," Burton said.

"Don't worry about them. We've done this before. They'll display a sign, out they go," Skelton said, growing ever angrier at the technical delay in testimony. "We mean business, this is a very important hearing we're not about to have this nonsense go on, now or later."

Moments later, Skelton tossed out another shouting protester.

No comments: