Petraeus Delivers Report on Conditions in Iraq

Today, U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus gives his much-anticipated report on the war in Iraq. We'll hear statements from Petraeus' assessment of the war and of the effects of the U.S. troop "surge" ordered by President Bush last winter.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The long-awaited testimony of Gen. David Petraeus before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees began early today. Chairman Ike Skelton of the Armed Services Committee began by saying the efforts of the so-called surge were too little too late.

Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri; Chairman, House Armed Services Committee): One of the great ironies of this hearing today is that Gen. Petraeus who sits here before us is almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq. But he's a right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short. 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 an Iraqi government bridging the political divides that drive the violence.

The surge was intended to provide breathing space. Breathing space to Iraqis to bridge sectarian divides with real political compromises. And while our troops are holding back the opposing team to let them make a touchdown, the Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball.

YDSTIE: Chairman Skelton was joined by Representative Tom Lantos of California who said Gen. Petraeus was a capable public servant, but lamented the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had done little to foster political progress in Iraq.

Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California): Prime Minister Maliki has not shown the slightest inclination to move in the direction of compromise. Instead of working to build national institutions, a truly Iraqi army, a competent bureaucracy, a non-sectarian police force, Maliki has moved in the opposite direction. The so-called unity accord announced with such fanfare a couple of weeks ago is just another in a long list of empty promises. Instead of acting as a leader for Iraq as a whole, Maliki has functioned as the front man for Shiite partisans. And he has presided over a Shiite coalition that includes some of the most notorious militias, death squads and sectarian thugs in Iraq.

This is not what the American people had in mind. And when Mr. Maliki states, as he recently did, that if the Americans leave, he can find, quote, "new friends." We are reminded most forcefully of his and his party's intimate ties to Iran.

YDSTIE: Lantos went on to say al-Maliki needs to understand that American troops could not be expected to do the heavy lifting in Iraq indefinitely.

Rep. LANTOS: We need to send Maliki's government a strong message, loud and clear, removing a brigade...

Representative ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (Republican, Florida): 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. Some in Congress accuse you, Gen. 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. And to believe that you would misrepresent the facts and alter conclusions to serve partisan purposes. I trust your reporting and that of our troops on the ground regarding the levels of sectarian violence over those compiled by individuals and entities who wish to discredit the information to justify an immediate withdrawal.

Gen. Petraeus, does this report reflect your knowledge and conclusions regarding the facts on the ground in Iraq? Do you stand behind it? The personal attacks launched today by MoveOn.org against Gen. Petraeus, calling this man of honor and courage General Betray Us, in a full-page ad in The New York Times, is outrageous and it is deplorable.

YDSTIE: That was Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in support of Gen. Petraeus. But it was some 40 minutes before Gen. Petraeus finally addressed the committee. He began by saying unequivocally that the so-called surge is working. And for American troops to leave Iraq now would have terrible results.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, Multinational Force, Iraq): One may argue that the best way to speed the process in Iraq is to change the MNF-I mission from one that emphasizes population security, counterterrorism and transition, to one that is strictly focused on transition and counterterrorism. Making that change now would, in our view, be premature. We have learned before that there is a real danger in handing over tasks to the Iraqi security forces before their capacity and local conditions warrant.

In fact, the drafters of the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq recognize this danger when they wrote, and I quote, "we assess that changing the mission of coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary counter-combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent al-Qaida in Iraq from establishing a safe haven, would erode security gains achieved thus far."

In describing the recommendations I have made, I should note again that like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And although, we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences.

YDSTIE: Gen. David Petraeus on Capitol Hill today. The hearings continue at this hour. Stay tuned to NPR for further coverage.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie in Washington.

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Military Goals of 'Surge' Largely Met, Petraeus Says

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Download a one-hour report on Monday's hearing:

Civilian deaths in Iraq chart

hide captionA chart presented to House lawmakers by Gen. David Petraeus shows declining civilian deaths in Iraq.

See Charts Accompanying Gen. Petraeus' Testimony (PDF)
Multi-National Force-Iraq

His microphone wouldn't work. He was heckled by protesters. But in the end, Gen. David Petraeus delivered a loud message Monday to two congressional committees: The surge is working, and the additional troops dispatched to Iraq will soon be able to return home.

Petraeus' assessment didn't seem to change many minds, though, with Republicans mostly applauding the general's testimony, Democrats questioning it—and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle treating the four–star general and Princeton graduate with deference.

Petraeus said troop levels could return to pre-"surge" levels by next summer, allowing the withdrawal of some 30,000 combat forces, beginning with a Marine contingent later this month. That would leave roughly 130,000 troops still in Iraq. He also recommended further troop cuts eventually, though he didn't specify how deep those cuts might be.

Sober Assessments

Petraeus used a phalanx of charts and graphs to hammer his case home: Despite tactical setbacks, violence is down throughout Iraq, especially in key regions of the country such as Baghdad and Anbar province — where, he said, Iraqis are turning against terrorists. But he added that "civilian deaths remain at an unacceptable level."

"The security situation in Iraq is improving," Petraeus said, but "innumerable challenges lie ahead."

The general also said that the Iraqi military is assuming more responsibility for the country's security.

"I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve," said Petraeus, who acknowledged that the situation in the country remains "complex, difficult and sometimes downright frustrating."

Petraeus' civilian counterpart in Baghdad, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, delivered a decidedly more sober assessment. "There will be no single moment when we can claim victory. Any turning point will likely be recognized only in retrospect," Crocker said. "(Iraq) is, and will remain for some time to come, a traumatized society."

Yet Crocker, like Petraeus, warned against a precipitous withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq and said he was optimistic about the long-term prospect for the country. He compared the situation in Iraq to the struggle for states' rights and civil rights in the United States.

Hearings Marked by Protests

Petraeus and Crocker presented their testimony before a packed congressional hearing room and a nationwide TV audience. Protesters from antiwar groups interrupted the proceedings several times with shouts of "tell the truth" and "troops home now." One of the protesters was Cindy Sheehan, a well-known figure in the antiwar movement whose son was killed in Iraq.

"This is intolerable," said Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO), as he banged his gavel and ordered Capital Hill police to remove the protesters.

Petraeus wore his crisp Amy uniform, his chest gleaming with medals. Lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, went out of their way to praise Petraeus, who is widely respected in military and civilian circles.

An ad paid for by the liberal group MoveOn.org was considerably less deferential. "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?" it asked, a word play on his name. During Monday's hearing, several lawmakers sharply criticized the ad, and nearly two dozen lawmakers, mostly Republican, called on Democrats to denounce it.

"These childish tactics are an insult to everyone fighting for our freedom in Iraq, and they should be condemned," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Petraeus did face some tough questioning, most notably from Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA).

"The administration's myopic policies on Iraq have created a fiasco," Lantos said. "We cannot take the administration's assertions on Iraq seriously, and no amount of charts or statistics will improve its credibility."

War Skepticism in America and Iraq

Petraeus' largely upbeat testimony clashes with recent surveys, which show wide skepticism among both the American and Iraqi publics. A USA Today-Gallup poll taken in the past few days found that 60 percent of those surveyed favor setting a timetable for removing troops. Only 35 percent favor keeping the troops in Iraq until the situation improves.

In Iraq, a poll conducted by ABC News and other broadcasters found 47 percent want American forces and their coalition allies to leave the country immediately, a jump of 12 percentage points from March. A total of 57 percent of Iraqis said they consider attacks on coalition forces acceptable.

Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, began his testimony by answering critics who have suggested his report was all but approved by the Bush administration.

"I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress," he said.

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