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US Iraq Commander: Early Withdrawal Would Help al-Qaida in Iraq

The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has told a joint congressional hearing that he believes U.S. forces could be reduced by next year to pre-military surge levels. As VOA's Dan Robinson reports from Capitol Hill, General Petraeus, and the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, cautioned that any rapid U.S. departure would bring deterioration in the situation and hand the initiative back to al-Qaida in Iraq and other groups.

General Petraeus told the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees that military objectives of the U.S. troop surge are in large measure being met.

He used charts to demonstrate what he called substantial progress by U.S. and Iraqi forces, with the overall number of security incidents declining in eight of the past 12 weeks.

While describing progress as uneven across the country, Petraeus pointed to signs that progress in al-Anbar province, cited by President Bush as the clearest example of the effectiveness of the military surge, has spread to other areas. "In what may be the most significant development of the past eight months, the tribal rejection of al-Qaida that started in Anbar province and helped produce such significant change there, has now spread to a number of other locations as well," he said.

Petraeus pointed to reductions in civilian and sectarian deaths in Baghdad and across Iraq by 45 and 55 percent respectively and 80 percent in Baghdad since December 2006, adding that losses are still too high.

He said coalition and Iraqi forces dealt significant blows to al-Qaida in Iraq and affiliates, removing a number of their sanctuaries, and disrupted Shia militia and Iranian-supported extremist groups.

General Petraeus envisions being able to remove without replacement military brigades by July of 2008, beginning with a Marine brigade later this month and followed by another in December and four next year. Current force levels are about 168,000.

However, he said it won't be until March of next year that he would develop estimates for future force level reductions below the pre-surge figure of about 130,000, and warned against any precipitous U.S. withdrawal. "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. The events of the past six months underscore that point," he said.

Lawmakers reiterated their support for General Petraeus. However, Democratic committee chairmen said his efforts have been hampered by the failure of Iraqi government leaders to move toward political reconciliation. "The witnesses must tell us why we should continue sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis won't make the tough sacrifices leading to reconciliation," said Armed Services chairman Ike Skelton.

General Petraeus said his reports were not cleared or submitted in advance to the White House or the Pentagon, in response to suggestions by anti-war critics and many Democratic lawmakers that his report amounted to little more than an expression of President Bush's position.

House Foreign Affairs chairman Tom Lantos described the appearance as an effort to restore credibility to what he called President Bush's failed policies. "We cannot take any of this administration's assertions on Iraq at face value any more and no amount of charts or statistics will improve its credibility," he said.

Delivering what he called a sober assessment, U.S. Ambassador Crocker pointed to what he sees as signs Iraqis have the will to overcome sectarian differences. "Leaders from all communities openly acknowledge that a focus on sectarian gains has led to poor governments and served Iraqis badly, and many claim to be ready to make the sacrifices that will be needed to put government performance ahead of sectarian and ethnic concerns," he said.

Echoing General Petraeus, Crocker warned of the consequences of any premature U.S. withdrawal, asserting that Iran would benefit and al-Qaida could re-establish itself, and noting that suicide bombers continue to cross into Iraq from Syria.

Monday's public hearing was marked by interruptions as protesters shouted "Out of Iraq" during testimony, ignoring warnings from the committee chairman. Capitol police reported four arrests, including the anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan.

Crocker and Petraeus will repeat their testimony on Tuesday before two Senate panels.