Petraeus Hints at Deeper Iraq Troop Pullout
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
On Capitol Hill today, the top U.S. commander in Iraq told a Senate panel he may soon recommend additional troop drawdowns. General David Petraeus was testifying at a confirmation hearing. He's President Bush's nominee to lead U.S. Central Command. Also at that hearing was the man nominated to replace Petraeus on Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA: When General Petraeus last testified before Congress six weeks ago, he was making no promises of any further troop withdrawals than those already planned to end in July. After that, there would be an indefinite lull in drawdowns. Today, at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus described the number of security incidents last week in Iraq as the lowest in over four years and predicted an even lower number this week. That prompted this from Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Is it now your intention to make a recommendation relative to further troop reductions before you change command, presumably in September?
General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): It is, Mr. Chairman.
WELNA: Though Petraeus did not say how many troops might leave, he did paint a scenario of a drawdown before the November elections.
(Soundbite of archived hearing)
Gen. PETRAEUS: I do believe that there will be certain assets that as we are already looking at the picture right now, we'll be able to recommend it can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall.
Sen. LEVIN: All right, well, that I think is good news to most of us.
WELNA: But there was also some not so good news. Petraeus said contrary to Pentagon projections, Iraqi security forces will not take over in all 18 of their county's provinces by July. He moved that goal to sometime next year. And he said provincial elections scheduled for October won't happen until November. Petraeus as head of central command would oversee all military operations in the Middle East and Central Asia. He echoed the Bush administration's warnings abut Iraq's neighbor to the east.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Iran continues to be a destabilizing influence in the region. It persists in its nontransparent pursued of nuclear technology and continues to fund, train, and arm dangerous militia organizations.
WELNA: That triggered a noisy reaction from a group of anti-war protesters, which Chairman Levin tried to quell.
Unidentified Woman #1: The Iranian love Americans. They do. They love (unintelligible)
Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible) think of the women, think of the mothers...
Sen. LEVIN: We're going to have asked you to now leave the room.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Unintelligible) give the country back to the Iraqi people.
Sen. LEVIN: Thank you.
WELNA: Later, pressed by a Virginia Democrat Jim Webb, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno said Iraq must have a stable self-reliant government and professionalized security force and not be a safe haven for terrorists.
Webb then asked this.
Senator JIM WEBB (Democrat, Virginia): Do you believe that if those conditions are met, there would be a need for the United States military in Iraq?
Gen. PETRAEUS: I do not. I believe what we would want though to maintain obviously military contacts, as we do with many countries around the world over time.
WELNA: Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton left the campaign trail to attend the hearing. She asked Petraeus about how large a priority it should be to hunt down al-Qaida's leaders, including Osama bin Laden.
Gen. PETRAEUS: Al-Qaida has been quite open about the fact that it sees its main effort to be in Iraq and that of course is appropriate again to do everything that we can there to pursue al-Qaida Iraq. And that is in fact what is ongoing.
Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Well, I know that we may not agree about what the principal emphasis should be with respect to our efforts against al-Qaida, because certainly the ongoing threat to the United States on our soil emanates from outside of Iraq.
WELNA: Still, committee chairman Carl Levin signaled his key support for both Petraeus and Odierno.
Sen. LEVIN: Regardless how long the administration may choose to remain engaged in the strife in that country, our troops are better off for the leadership that these two distinguished soldiers provide.
WELNA: Levin said he hoped to bring their nominations to the Senate floor as swiftly as possible.
David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.