LYNN NEARY, host:
The war in Iraq regains top billing in Congress this week, at least temporarily. On Tuesday the chief military officer in Iraq and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad will brief senators on the situation there. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will meet with both the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. That means all three presidential candidates will have an opportunity to ask questions about the situation on the ground in Iraq.
Joining me now is NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Welcome to the show.
TOM BOWMAN: Good to be here.
NEARY: So, what are we likely to hear from Petraeus and Crocker?
BOWMAN: Well, Petraeus is going to send a message that he expects to reduce U.S. forces down to 15 brigades by this summer - that's roughly 140,000 troops - and any further reductions will probably wait at least into the fall and then they'll make a decision at that point whether to reduce them even more.
What Petraeus wants is a pause to make sure that the security gains hold in the country. So he doesn't want to reduce troops quite that fast, as some Democrats are pushing for.
What we'll probably hear from Crocker is that there's been some political movement in the country, some reconciliation. They expect to have provincial elections on October 1. They're not happy but they will send a message that, listen, there is some progress; we'd like to see more.
NEARY: All right. And what kind of questions are they going to be getting?
BOWMAN: Well, I think a lot of questions will focus on Basra with the…
BOWMAN: …violence down there. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sent thousands of Iraqi forces down there. It didn't go that well. They had to bring in the U.S. aircraft to attack some of those strong points. He didn't disarm the militias. We've sort of kicked that can down the road.
And a lot of people think Muqtada al-Sadr, who is vehemently anti-American, came out on top. And now Muqtada al-Sadr is planning a rally on April 8, the same day that General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker will be testifying.
NEARY: And presumably a lot of questions about the political situation in Iraq and how well trained the security forces are.
BOWMAN: That's right. We had about 1,000 of the Iraqi security forces sort of take off their uniforms and join the other side. There will be a lot of questions about how competent these forces are. It's been a couple of years of training the Iraqi security forces. And people I've talked with both at the Pentagon and when I travel to Iraq say, listen, these guys are a mixed bag. It's going to take a number of years before they can take over security in the country.
Pentagon is saying to control Iraq itself, you know, internal situation in Iraq for the security forces, some time between 2009 and 2012. So that's what they're saying now and it's always been pretty optimistic in my experience when they think they'll be ready. But that's still a long time down the road.
NEARY: What's the reaction in general in the military to the pause in American troop reductions?
BOWMAN: Well, I think privately a lot in the military would like to see further reductions and they would like to see them come faster. The army is very stretched here in Iraq. They're seeing problems with recruiting. Now, they're making their numbers with recruiting, the Army is, but they're bringing in a lower quality recruit - more without high school diplomas, more with waivers for criminal offenses, and more recruits who have scored the lowest category in the Army's aptitude test. They're also losing sergeants and captains at a higher rate, and there's a great deal of concern about that.
NEARY: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Thanks for being with us.
BOWMAN: You're welcome.
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