Petraeus, Crocker Update Congress on Iraq

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, briefs both the Senate Armed Services and the Senate Foreign Relations committees Tuesday on the military situation in Iraq. Lawmakers will also be updated on political developments by the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

The top U.S. military commander and American diplomat in Iraq make a return appearance on Capitol Hill today. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker begin testimony before two committees and three presidential candidates.

INSKEEP: They come back to Washington at a time when the U.S. is trying to reduce its commitment to Iraq somewhat. Some of the troops sent in a so-called surge are coming home over the next few months. But the general is expected to recommend a freeze on further troop reductions.

That strategic pause would be to gauge if fewer troops can maintain a decline in overall violence. It's now at a three-year low. The testimony comes at a bad moment. Government troops have been fighting Shiite militias, and in the past 48 hours, we're told 11 American soldiers have been killed. And the political progress that was supposed to come with the drop in violence hasn't materialized. NPR's Guy Raz has more.

GUY RAZ: Whether the surge of U.S. forces and the changes in military tactics brought about the decline of violence in Iraq is an open question. And many senior military officers acknowledge that the decline is tenuous at best. Here's Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mr. MICHAEL MULLEN (Admiral, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): It's going to take us a while to get to a point where the security sustains itself and becomes irreversible. And I think we're not there yet.

RAZ: That the violence is down to levels not seen since 2004 is now widely acknowledged.

Mr. RAED JARRAR (Political Activist, Consultant, American Friends Service Committee): Things has changed militarily. And I think anyone who denies that things has changed militarily, and that the attacks in general has dropped will be just denying the truth.

RAZ: This is Raed Jarrar. He's an Iraqi political activist and a consultant to the anti-war American Friends Service Committee. Jarrar is quick to point out what that decline in violence actually means: lately, at least 700 Iraqi civilian deaths per month and on average, 40 American troops.

And since last November, the level of violence in Iraq hasn't significantly declined. It's plateaued. So for this reason, Petraeus is likely to recommend keeping about 140,000 total troops in Iraq for an undetermined period of time.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chair, Armed Services Committee): How long a pause is it? Is it 30 days? Sixty days? A hundred days? Three months? Four months? Five months?

RAZ: This is Michigan Senator Carl Levin. He's the chairman of the Armed Services committee and the man who will be the first to question Petraeus and Crocker this morning.

Sen. LEVIN: The only hope for a political settlement in Iraq is if they know that we are leaving. And to tell them that now there's going to be a pause, at the same point we were before the surge, is a message to the Iraqi leaders that they can continue to dawdle.

RAZ: But dawdle or not, retired Army Colonel Paul Hughes, who's with the U.S. Institute of Peace, believes that Iraq's current leadership is largely incompetent.

Mr. PAUL HUGHES (Retired Army Colonel, U.S. Institute of Peace): This last dust-up, this operation that they conducted in Basra, is pretty indicative of their inability to politically bring things to a peaceful conclusion.

RAZ: That dust-upor rather, the Iraqi army's defeat at the hands of the country's largest Shiite militia, revealed three important things. One: that Iraq's army is not yet capable of protecting the population. Two: that it's widely viewed as a political and sectarian force by the Iraqi population. And three: that Iran, which helped to broker the cease-fire, is possibly the most influential outside political force in Iraq today - a force that may have to be engaged if the U.S. wants to see a political accommodation in Iraq.

And reaching that political accommodation is not an entirely unrealistic goal, according to Daniel Serwer, the man who helped draft the 2006 Iraq Study Group Report.

Mr. DANIEL SERWER (Drafted Iraq Study Group Report): I've been in a lot of broken countries, countries that would be impossible to put back together again. I don't have the sense that Iraq, at least Arab Iraq, is impossible to put back together again.

RAZ: But even Serwer admits that process could take years, maybe even decades.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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Petraeus, Crocker Warn Iraq Progress Is Reversible

A map showing a decline in activity in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq by Al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents was among the charts Gen. David Petraeus presented to the Senate committee Tuesday. Senate Armed Services Committee hide caption

See the Charts
itoggle caption Senate Armed Services Committee

The Petraeus Report

In September, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, testified before Congress about progress in the so-called troop "surge" strategy. The much-anticipated report adds fuel to the debate on whether to begin drawing down troops or approve more funding for the war. Explore coverage of his 2007 testimony.

The Toll of War in Iraq: U.S. Casualties and Civilian Deaths

Chart U.S. military casualties and civilian deaths in Iraq month by month against key events in the war — and hear about the lives of those who died fighting.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told a Senate panel on Tuesday that American and Iraqi forces had made great strides toward the goal of bringing security to the country, but called for an open-ended suspension of troop withdrawals that he said could jeopardize progress.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Service Committee, the Iraq war commander told lawmakers that there had been "significant but uneven security progress" in Iraq since the so-called surge strategy put 30,000 more soldiers on the ground in Iraq.

He cited a marked decrease in the number of U.S. and Iraqi deaths since the surge, but warned that an upsurge of sectarian violence in recent weeks showed that the progress made was "fragile and reversible."

Petraeus recommended a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" once the extra combat forces that President Bush ordered to Iraq last year have completed their pullout in July.

"At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions," he said.

"Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially. Al-Qaeda Iraq and a number of other extremists elements have been dealt serious blows," he told lawmakers.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker spoke to the political stability in Iraq, saying the White House's troop plans in Iraq would not "tie the hands of the next administration."

He also pointed to progress made by the government of President Nouri al-Maliki, adding that continued U.S. support was vital.

"This does not mean that U.S. support should be open-ended," he said.

The recent violence in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, where Iraqi forces have taken the lead against Shiite militiamen, showed "there is still very much to be done" to stabilize the situation, but "when viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to combat these groups in Basra has major significance."

"Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustrating slow, but there is progress," Crocker said. "Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment."

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has expressed solidarity with the Bush administration's desire to stabilize U.S. troop levels at 140,000 after July's withdrawal, spoke before Petraeus.

McCain was careful to distinguish his support for last year's surge strategy from the previous "four years of mismanaged war."

A year after the surge, however, McCain said, "We're no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can look ahead to the prospect of success."

McCain's statement was briefly interrupted by spectators. Later, a gallery observer interjected "bring them home!" during a question to Petraeus.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, who questioned both Petraeus and Crocker, called for an "orderly" withdrawal of troops. She praised U.S. forces as "the best in the world" but said the costs of the war in lives and money were placing an undue burden on the nation.

"The longer we stay in Iraq, the longer we divert challenges from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world," she said.

Clinton acknowledged "the very difficult dilemma that any policy in Iraq poses to leaders," but said that Iraqi leaders had consistently failed to deliver on promises of progress.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Petraeus and Crocker appeared Tuesday afternoon. Obama pressed them on their standard for success in Iraq. Obama said he worries that the goals — completely eliminating al-Qaida and Iranian influences — may be impossible to achieve and troops could be there for 20 or 30 years in a fruitless effort.

"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," Obama said.

Sen. Richard Lugar said "appealing for more time to make progress was insufficient" and that the U.S. needs a "definable, political strategy that recognizes the time limitations we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect American vital interests." Lugar, of Indiana, is the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Republican.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who chairs the panel, asked Petraeus to estimate on a scale of one to 10 how close the U.S. is to being able to significantly reduce forces in Iraq. Petraeus said, "I think we're in a six or a seven, or somewhere along there."

Biden responded: "I can't think of any circumstance where you fellows are likely to recommend no matter how bad things got where you would withdraw. But I may be mistaken. That's part of everyone's concern."

In Iraq, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened on Tuesday to end a cease-fire he imposed on his militia last August, raising the prospect of further violence.

Despite the cease-fire, Sadr's followers have clashed with Iraqi government troops and U.S. forces in the south of the country and Baghdad in recent weeks, leading to Iraq's worst violence since the first half of 2007.

From staff and wire reports

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