Petraeus: Iraq Progress 'Fragile, Reversible' Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Baghdad tells a pair of Senate committees that a troop surge in Iraq has been successful, but that the success is fragile. Ambassador Ryan Crocker echoes Petraeus' concerns.
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Petraeus: Iraq Progress 'Fragile, Reversible'

Petraeus: Iraq Progress 'Fragile, Reversible'

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Gen. David Petraeus, the top American commander in Baghdad tells a pair of Senate committees that a troop surge in Iraq has been successful, but that the success is fragile. Ambassador Ryan Crocker echoes Petraeus' concerns.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The top American military commander in Iraq and the top U.S. diplomat there told two Senate committees today that the surge in U.S. forces in Iraq has made progress. But they said that progress, while significant, is also reversible.

General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the senators that troop reductions should stop in July, and at that time there should be a 45-day period of evaluation. General Petraeus wouldn't say how long he thought it might be before any more reductions could be made.

This was a return appearance by the two men, and General Petraeus referred the senators to his prior testimony.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq): Since Ambassador Crocker and I appeared before you seven months ago, there has been significant but uneven security progress in Iraq. Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially, al-Qaida in Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows. The capabilities of Iraqi security force elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis and local security.

Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain. Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Ryan Crocker echoed Petraeus' assessment. Iraq has come a long way, but it could yet come undone. And he addressed the subject that several senators asked about: the role of Iran.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. to Iraq): Iran continuous to undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government to establish a stable, secure state through the training of criminal militia elements engaged in violence against Iraqi security forces, coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.

SIEGEL: The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, pressed General Petraeus on troop levels. If there's a drawdown through July and then a period of evaluation, what's the best case?

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): If all goes well, what would be the approximate number of our troops there at the end of the year? Let's assume conditions permitted things to move quickly. What, in your estimate, would be the approximate number of American troops there at the end of the year? Can you give us — just say if you can't give us an estimate…

Ambassador CROCKER: Sir, I can't give you estimate on that.

Sen. LEVIN: All right. You're not going to give us an estimate on that.

SIEGEL: For some protesters in the audience, Petraeus' answers were unsatisfactory. One man shouted, bring them home.

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

Sen. LEVIN: Could…

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

(Soundbite of gavel)

Sen. LEVIN: If you could please…

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

Sen. LEVIN: We're asking the audience…

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

Sen. LEVIN: …if you could bring the gentlemen out. I'm afraid we're going to have to ask him to leave.

SIEGEL: Republican John Warner of Virginia reminded the two men of the question that he had put to Petraeus back in September.

Sen. JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): I would hope that you could frame a short message at this moment, both of you, to the American people in response to the same question I asked of you last year, general. Is all this sacrifice bringing about a more secure America?

SIEGEL: In September, Petraeus said frankly, he didn't know. Today?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I've thought more than a bit about that, senator, since September and though I continue to think it's a question perhaps best answered by folks with a broader view and ultimately will have to be answered by history, I obviously have thoughts on it and on the importance of the…

SIEGEL: Two minutes into the general's answer, Senator Warner interrupted.

Gen. PETRAEUS: ...more important objectives in Iraq…

Sen. WARNER: But general, my time clock is moving pretty quickly. It was a fairly simple question. Does that translate into a greater security for those who of us at home?

SIEGEL: And General Petraeus made a more positive answer.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Senator, I do believe that it is worth it or I would not have, I guess, accepted. I'm, you know, you do what you're ordered to do but you sometimes are asked whether you would like to - or are willing to take on a task. And I took on the task of - the privilege of command of multinational force Iraq because I do believe that it is worth it, and I do believe the interests there are of enormous importance, again to our country, not just to the people of Iraq and the people of that region, and the world.

SIEGEL: General Petraeus talked about Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's offensive in Basra. John McCain asked him what the lesson was that 1,000 Iraqi troops defected or underperformed.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, one lesson, senator, is that relatively new forces - what happened was in one case, a brigade that literally had just come out of units at fielding was pressed into operation. The other lesson is a recurring one, and that is the difficulty of local police operating in areas where there is serious intimidation of themselves and of their families.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Suffice to say it was a disappointment.

Gen. PETRAEUS: It was, although it is not over yet, senator.

SIEGEL: Also noteworthy about today's testimony was that all of the presidential contenders participated. During the Armed Services Committee hearing, Republican McCain spoke out forcefully against the withdrawal of U.S. forces. He said a premature withdrawal would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.

Later, Senator Hillary Clinton reiterated her support of a prompt, phased withdraw.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups, and other problems that confront America.

SIEGEL: And this afternoon, Senator Barack Obama had his chance for questions during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He said the Iraqi government needs to be held accountable.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I think that increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind - and this is where we disagree - includes a timetable for withdrawal. Nobody is asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured, but increased pressure.

Tomorrow, the general and the ambassador return to Capitol Hill for House committee hearings.

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Petraeus, Crocker Warn Iraq Progress Is Reversible

Analysis of the Patraeus, Crocker Hearings

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Coverage from 'All Things Considered'

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Testimony from the Hearings

Gen. Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus' Opening Statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee

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Petraeus: 'Significant but Uneven Progress in Iraq'

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Petraeus: 'A Period of Consolidation and Evaluation' Before Further U.S. Troop Reductions

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Petraeus: Iran's 'Destructive Role' in Iraq

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Ambassador Crocker

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker's Opening Testimony

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Crocker: 'There is Progress' in Iraq

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Crocker: Iraq's Move in Basra Shows Maliki's Commitment

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Crocker: Negotiations on the Future of the U.S.-Iraq Relationship

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Presidential Candidates

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton: 'Irresponsible to Continue' Failed Policy

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Clinton: 'Vague' Conditions for Progress in Iraq

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Republican Sen. John McCain: Leaving Behind a 'Successful Mission'

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McCain: Reject Calls for 'Reckless' Withdrawal from Iraq

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Democratic Sen. Barack Obama: Defining Success in Iraq

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Obama: Using a Withdrawal Timetable to Pressure Iraqis

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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
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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