The New York Times: Petraeus Warns Against Quick Pullback in Iraq

By DAVID S. CLOUD and THOM SHANKER
September 11, 2007

WASHINGTON, Sept. 10 — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, warned in stark terms against the kind of rapid pullback favored by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, in a day of testimony on Monday that drove home the continuing inability of the Democrats to force a change in strategy in Iraq.
The general’s appearance in the cavernous Cannon Caucus room, the scene of past confrontations between Congress and the White House, crackled at various points with partisan tension, and his testimony was interrupted repeatedly by shouting protesters who were quickly escorted from the room.
“The situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult and sometimes downright frustrating,” General Petraeus said, as he began two days of highly anticipated appearances before Congress. “I also believe that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, although doing so will be neither quick nor easy.”
The hearings had been expected to provoke an epic confrontation between opponents of the war and its front-line leaders. But that conflict did not fully materialize Monday, in part because only a few Democrats on two House committees seemed inclined to dispute with much vigor the assessments provided by a commander with medals on his chest and four stars on his shoulders.
Still, the proceedings put General Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the United States ambassador to Iraq, in the unusual position of appealing directly to lawmakers for more time to allow their efforts to work, even as Democrats have made clear that they have little remaining faith in that strategy.
General Petraeus said he believed that the United States was meeting most of its military objectives in Iraq. He said he had recommended to President Bush a timetable that would include withdrawal by next July, slightly ahead of schedule, of the nearly 30,000 additional troops that President Bush has sent to Iraq since January.
But the general also warned that the situation in Iraq remained too fragile to undertake the major shift in mission and more rapid troop reductions that Democrats in the House and Senate have sought. The plan he outlined would still leave a main body of at least 130,000 American troops in Iraq next summer, and he said that it would be premature to discuss a timetable for further withdrawals beyond those he outlined.
Though many lawmakers praised General Petraeus’s service, several of the Democrats among a joint panel composed of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services Committees dismissed his testimony as a White House publicity stunt.
Representative Ike Skelton, a Missouri Democrat and the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, opened the questioning by challenging the value of a troop increase whose goal was to give breathing space to political reconciliation among Iraq’s warring factions.
“Iraqi leaders have made no progress,” he said.
In his testimony, General Petraeus declared that his statements were his own, and had not been drafted or approved by the White House or the Pentagon. He will appear before two Senate committees on Tuesday, and President Bush is expected to say in a speech later this week that he is accepting his top commander’s recommendations.
But Democratic leaders made clear that they intended to continue their fight. They pointed out that the recommendations from General Petraeus embraced only modest adjustments in troop levels and no immediate strategy shift, even though the White House had built up the September review as a major re-evaluation of its Iraq policy.
“Today we heard that the Bush administration likely intends to keep at least 130,000 troops in Iraq through next summer,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “U.S. national security requires that we truly and immediately change course in Iraq.”
General Petraeus spent six-and-a-half hours before the House committees, with only occasional breaks. While the questioning was at times confrontational, it also included reminders that the general had already laid effective groundwork for his appearance, as a number of lawmakers prefaced their questions by thanking him for meeting them in Baghdad or providing helicopters for their visits in recent months.
One of the few lawmakers to challenge General Petraeus was Representative Robert Wexler, a Democrat from Florida, who accused the commander of “cherry-picking statistics” and “massaging information.” He compared the testimony to that given in a 1967 speech to Congress by Gen. William C. Westmoreland, when he said American forces were making progress and would prevail.
General Petraeus said he stood by his description of progress and that his statistics were accurate, well-scrutinized and supported by other government agencies. “No one is more conscious of the loss of life than the commander of the forces,” he said. “That is something I take and feel deeply.”
He conceded that security gains since additional American troops arrived earlier this year had been “uneven,” but said that the reductions in violence in Baghdad and elsewhere warranted continuing the current strategy, with gradual adjustments over the next year to put Iraqi forces more in the lead.
Ambassador Crocker acknowledged the frustration of members of Congress and of the American people, but argued that Iraqi leaders “are serious” and “are capable of coming together and thrashing out issues in a serious and deliberate manner.”
But both the ambassador and General Petraeus, who earned a Ph.D. in international relations from Princeton University as a young officer, also warned of the danger that the security gains seen in Iraq already could be reversed, as has happened before when the United States has lowered its force levels.
“Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous,” General Petraeus said.
Ambassador Crocker emphasized the momentous significance of Iraq’s efforts to put in place a functioning government just four years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. He admitted that he was “frustrated every day” in Iraq over the failure of its leaders to achieve political progress and sectarian reconciliation even as security improved.
But he warned lawmakers that an abrupt American pullout could lead Iran and Iraq’s other neighbors to intervene even more aggressively, worsening the instability and harming American interests. “What would come next would be a gigantic street fight,” he said.
For their part, Republicans furiously denounced a full-page advertisement by the liberal antiwar group MoveOn.org that accused General Petraeus of “cooking the books for the White House,” saying he had provided misleading statistics to back up his claim that violence in Iraq had come down. The full-page ad appeared in The New York Times on Monday, under the headline “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”
Eli Pariser, a spokesman for MoveOn, said: “We stand by our ad.”
Democratic presidential candidates and Congressional leaders appeared wary of criticizing the liberal group.
“Senator Obama’s question is not about General Petraeus’s patriotism, it’s about his logic,” said Bill Burton, a spokesman for Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois. Phil Singer, a spokesman for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, accused Republicans of “generating a political sideshow instead of discussing the president’s failed war policy.”