Petraeus Testifies on Iraq Surge

Gen. David Petraeus testified before Congress on Monday, delivering perhaps the most anticipated wartime assessment in a generation. Farai Chideya talks with Juan Williams about Petraeus' report on the war in Iraq, and the prescriptions he has for the country.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, General David Petraeus testifies before Congress, delivering perhaps the most anticipated wartime assessment in a generation. Petraeus' report is likely to echo President Bush's Labor Day speech that sectarian violence is down and the troop surge needs more time. But questions remain about the advocacy of Iraq's central government and the effect a longer surge could have on army and Marine forces that are already stretched thin.

For more, we've got NPR's Juan Williams.

Hi, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: How are you, Farai?

CHIDEYA: Well, this is tricky. At the time of our broadcast, General Petraeus is just getting ready to address Congress. Still, you have a good idea what his overall game plan is. Let's start with the toughest question: Is the troop surge working?

WILLIAMS: And his answer will be yes, that, in fact, you see a decrease in sectarian violence in Iraq, specifically in Baghdad, the capital. And at the effort to even construct the walls has helped to tamp down on some of the fighting and, certainly, decreased the number of deaths. Now, that's going to be what he says and is part of a plea for the Congress to give him more time to accomplish even more of a stabilization of Iraq.

I might add here that there are separate numbers that come from the general -the GAO, the General Accounting Office, and even another report by a General Jones last week that suggested that the army and the military had not been able to come up to speed as quickly as Americans might have hoped. But General Petraeus will take a much more forward-looking optimistic point of view.

CHIDEYA: So is this GAO report going to undermine Petraeus' testimony and credibility?

WILLIAMS: Well, there's conflicting data. And it can't undermine him because the data's not public, Farai. So there's been pleas from the Democrats to make it public and to make the data that General Petraeus is relying on public as well. The White House, so far, has turned down those requests and said that it's a matter of military secrecy. But the general impression is that General Petraeus is someone who is going to tell the truth. And his numbers may be a little different, but overall, that his report will be supported by what congressional delegations have seen over the last month, that there appears to be less on the street violence in Baghdad and in some of the distant provinces, such as even Anwar province, the one that President Bush visited recently.

CHIDEYA: Now, the question here: How long can the U.S. troops sustain the surge? And, Juan, are you hearing anything about whether or not, once again, the military is considering extending the troops' tours of duty to continue the surge?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is an argument that's taking place inside the Pentagon. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates and some of the heads of the various branches of the Armed Forces and the joint chiefs of staff have suggested that that, in fact, by next spring, the military will be stretched and - to the point of breaking and that they cannot extend beyond that point.

And I might add that that also fits the political timetable, Farai, that six months before the '08 elections, the Republicans want at least to start to see a few brigades coming home. And so that would mean, you know, five to 10,000. Right now, we're at 170,000 in all. We're at the, really, the most Americans in Iraq at - of any time. And the idea is that Senator Warner of Virginia has asked that some begin coming home by Christmas.

And President Bush, who's going to speak later this week, to talk around Washington is he's going to say that you're going to start to see some reductions by springtime. And as I said, I don't think there's much of a choice there because the military is at the breaking point.

CHIDEYA: There's so many moving pieces here. You have al-Qaida in Iraq, some victories there in al-Anbar province. But some of these reports have leveled harsh criticism at the Iraqi government for being unable to make good on the benchmarks that it set for itself. Are the general's hands tied as long as he's saddled with a stalemate in the Iraqi government?

WILLIAMS: They are. And, you know, last week he sent a letter out to the troops in Iraq saying that, you know, progress hasn't come as quickly on the political front as he had hoped. That you have achieved some tactical improvements. But in terms of the reason for these tactical improvements, which was to allow the Iraqi government to take shape, to allow the Iraqi army and police to get up to speed, to allow the Iraqi people to find a way top economically sustain themselves by dividing up the revenue from oil and other economic enterprises, that that just hasn't come about.

So he expressed frustration with the political developments in Iraq as well as with the political insistency and some might argue, impatience here at home, to - for getting the job done. So his job, as he's testifying today - by the way, this is only the first day of testimony. He's going to have two other sessions before the Congress, Farai. His job, in a sense, is to say that on the military front, he sees progress. But to acknowledge that in terms of the political timetable, the benchmarks that you mention, the Iraqi government, Prime Minister al-Maliki's - they've fallen behind.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned some impatience with potential timetables. Again, the Republicans, some of them starting to break away from the president's position. Do you think this is going to continue? Are there any hints that there will be more breakaway Republican voices?

WILLIAMS: This is a very tricky political calculus to be played here. In some ways, what you're hearing, what I'm hearing from White House people is they don't mind if a few Republicans break away, especially Republicans who are politically vulnerable. Here, we're talking about people like Norm Coleman, the senator from Minnesota, Olympia Snowe in Maine. They're talking about people who they want to retain in the Congress, make sure that they are able to win the election.

But the White House doesn't see that there's anywhere near the dozen Republican votes in the Senate that would be necessary to create a veto-proof majority that would vote to either set a deadline or the pull funding at this moment in order to end the war. So they don't mind if there are few breakaways. And so far, there really haven't been very many breakaways. So far, they've been able to hold the line. And it's a big surprise that the Democrats who thought that with the August recess, as members of Congress, Republicans went home, they would get so much criticism because, as you know, the poll numbers suggest most Americans want the war over. But that didn't play out and the Republicans instead have focused on the tactical improvements that have come with the success - the limited success, but success related to having more Americans on the ground and tamping down the violence.

CHIDEYA: Well, Juan, thanks so much for the update.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Farai.

CHIDEYA: NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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