LIANE HANSEN, host:
President Bush has been the publicist in chief for David Petraeus' testimony before Congress tomorrow. The president is urging Americans to withhold judgment on the war in Iraq until the top U.S. commander there provides his assessment. General Petraeus is expected to recommend that the surge of American forces continue into next year, but Petraeus may also open the door for some reductions in troops.
It would be a key moment for the debate over the war and as NPR's Tom Bowman reports, it will also be a key moment for the General himself.
TOM BOWMAN: The war is dragging on. There are divisions among Congress and the American people about the way ahead. Questions about troop levels and progress. A reporter corrals the top American commander.
Unidentified Reporter: How do you see it, general?
General WILLIAM WESTMORELAND (U.S. Army): If we're making real progress, everybody is very optimistic that I know of who is intimately(ph) associated with our effort there.
BOWMAN: That was Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam 40 years ago this November, just before the Tet Offensive - a battlefield defeat for the Vietcong. But after Tet, talk in the U.S. of progress rang hallow.
Unlike Westmoreland, Gen. Petraeus has not downplayed the difficulties. This was Petraeus at his confirmation hearing earlier this year.
General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard. Progress will require determination and difficult U.S. and Iraqi actions, especially the latter. As ultimately, the outcome will be determined by the Iraqis.
BOWMAN: Now, some nine months later, Petraeus has convinced some skeptics like Michaels O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. O'Hanlon recently visited Petraeus in Baghdad.
Professor Michaels O'Hanlon (Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution): While he didn't want to oversell the progress they had made on the battlefield, he was talking about military momentum. And I think that's the right choice of words because obviously, Iraq is nowhere near a stability and we are nowhere a peaceful society. And it would be very easy to exaggerate the progress.
BOWMAN: Petraeus' goal is to convince Congress to continue the so-called surge and troops. He says sectarian violence has been tempted down, although some experts question his numbers and methodology.
The general has one wide praise for his detailed briefing in Baghdad from lawmakers, journalist and retired officers alike. Some accompany him in helicopter trips around the city or to military outpost manned by Americans and Iraqis.
Retired Marine General Jim Jones appeared this week before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
General JIM JONES (U.S. Marines, Retired): Extremely impressed. The Ambassador - Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petraeus…
BOWMAN: His view seems to be widely held. Finally, the right people in the right jobs. The veteran diplomat with long service in the Middle East. The brainy general with his Princeton PhD and combat patch from the 101st Airborne Division.
And that Senate hearing on the Iraqi security forces offered a taste of what's to come this week when Petraeus will be in the witness chair.
Here's Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Like other Democrats, Kennedy wants the troops to start coming home. He press Gen. Jones.
Senator TED KENNEDY (Democrats, Massachusetts): Don't you think Americans are wondering when the Iraqis are going to fight for their own country?
Gen. JONES: Senator, you ask a very good question. It's a very complex situation. We try to point out that the key to ending sectarian violence has to be found within the Iraqis themselves.
BOWMAN: And here's Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. He's supportive of the surge.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): And if we went back by mandating withdrawals and reducing our military presence too rapidly, then some of the benefits of the tactic of the surge might be negated.
You have to adjust your force levels very carefully. Make sure that you don't create those pre-conditionals that would have that happen.
BOWMAN: O'Hanlon of the Brookings institution says there may be progress in Iraq. But it doesn't get to the central question.
Prof. O'HANLON: It doesn't answer the question of how the dickens you get out of this place.
BOWMAN: The hard part is the exit strategy, he says. That's the question for politicians and not a general. But O'Hanlon says Petraeus will have to point us in the right direction.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
HANSEN: General Petraeus will testify about the effects of the troop surge.
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