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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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