Lawmakers Grill Petraeus, Crocker

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Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, faced tough questions on Iraq from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

For more on the Senate testimony, we go now to NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman.

Hello, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN: Hello there.

NORRIS: Now, we heard a lot of talk today about how long U.S. troops should be in Iraq. Do we get a better sense of General Petraeus' thinking about a timetable?

BOWMAN: Well, we know that he'll continue to draw down to the so-called surge troops. That's the added 30,000 troops into July. Now, that will still leave about 140,000 troops. Then they'll have a 45-day pause so they can reassess. And then he said after that, when recommendations will come, it could be, shortly thereafter, it could be weeks if not months. So, the bottom line is you could have 140,000 troops there toward the end of the year. And that's more troops than the U.S. had when it went into Iraq into 2003.

NORRIS: General Petraeus is once again going to the Senate and asking for patience. He did say that Iraqi forces have improved. Did he elaborate much on that?

BOWMAN: A little bit. He said Iraqi forces are getting better by the day. You know, tens of thousands more are coming online, but they still need more experienced junior officers and sergeants. They need more equipment. It will just take some time. And American officers have said for quite some time that it will take anywhere from, let's say, 2009 to 2012 before Iraqis can really handle any internal threats.

NORRIS: Now, what about political progress? Did the general and Ambassador Ryan Crocker have anything to say about that?

BOWMAN: Well, they have said there's some political progress. For example, the Iraqi government has reformed de-Baathification laws. Many more low-level Baathists could come back into the government, but a lot of that depends on how it's implemented. Also, there are plans to hold elections by October 1st; that would allow, for example, more Sunnis to come into the government, and the Sunnis sat out the last election.

But, you know, Crocker said overall, there is a potential — and that's the word he used — potential for Iraq to develop into what he called a stable, multiethnic state, and whether that happens, he said, is really up to the Iraqi people.

NORRIS: Iran's role in Iraq is a subject that has stirred quite a bit of debate here in Washington. Did Iran come up much throughout the testimony today?

BOWMAN: You know, it did quite a bit. And a lot of what we heard was murky. The two men, for example, said that Iran continues to train and equip these so-called special groups of the Mahdi army. These are breakaway groups of the army controlled by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. And the special groups, they say, for example, use highly lethal roadside bombs against Americans. But it's interesting. They also said - there were reports that Iran helped broker the cease-fire by the Mahdi army in Basra recently. And they also said under questioning that Iran has a dialog with all Shiite groups throughout the country.

And of course, Shiites are the largest group in the country, about 60 percent of the population.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowman. Thanks so much, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

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Petraeus, Crocker Warn Iraq Progress Is Reversible

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Testimony from the Hearings

Gen. Petraeus

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Ambassador Crocker

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Presidential Candidates

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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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