The American commander in Iraq says the U.S. troop presence there will be reduced by about 2,000 this month, and another 3,500 by the end of the year. But General David Petraeus said he needs most of the 168,000 U.S. troops he has now well into next year to preserve security gains and give the Iraqi government a chance to move toward reconciliation. The general and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, delivered their highly-anticipated reports to the U.S. congress Monday, and VOA's Al Pessin reports.
It was a moment of high drama in a packed congressional hearing room.
"Ladies and gentlemen, the hearing will come to order," said Congressman Ike Skelton.
The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Ike Skelton, called to order a rare joint hearing with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The more than 100 members of the two committees, and a worldwide television audience, heard General Petraeus say the surge of U.S. forces is achieving its goal of improving security in Iraq, and he made this declaration.
"I have recommended a drawdown of the surge forces from Iraq," said General Petraeus. "In fact, later this month, the marine expeditionary unit deployed as part of the surge will depart Iraq. Beyond that, if my recommendations are approved, that unit's departure will be followed by the withdrawal of a brigade combat team without replacement in early December and the further redeployment without replacement of four other brigade combat teams and the two surge marine battalions in the first seven months of 2008."
That means the general wants to keep most of the additional 30,000 U.S. troops involved in the 'surge,' until their tours of duty expire, starting in April of next year. But he does not think they will have to be replaced. General Petraeus also said he expects to recommend further troop cuts to follow, but he said it is too early to do that now. He wants to make a further report next March.
The general said there has been a significant decrease in violence in Iraq since the surge began in January, but he acknowledged progress is slow and there is still too much violence. He also said Iraqi security forces are improving, but slowly, and he cautioned against "rushing to failure" by putting too much responsibility on the Iraqis before they are ready.
Sitting alongside him, Ambassador Crocker also lamented slow progress toward Iraqi political reconciliation, calling it "frustrating" for all concerned. But he also noted the agreement by top Iraqi leaders last month to work together on key issues, and he, too, called for a continuation of U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq.
"I cannot guarantee success in Iraq," said Ambassador Crocker. "I do believe, as I have described, that it is attainable. I am certain that abandoning, or drastically curtailing, our efforts will bring failure. And the consequences of such a failure must be clearly understood by us all."
Ambassador Crocker said those consequences would include "massive human suffering" and possibly a regional conflict in which Iran would emerge as a winner.
General Petraeus criticized Iran and Syria for contributing to the ongoing violence in Iraq. And he also warned against the consequences of drawing down the U.S. troop presence in Iraq too quickly.
"Like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort," he said. "There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And although we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."
Both officials also noted the turnaround in al-Anbar Province and some other areas, where local leaders have switched their allegiance in recent months from al-Qaida to the Iraqi government and the coalition.
General Petraeus said he presented his recommendations on the pace of U.S. troop reductions in Iraq to his superiors two weeks ago, but that his testimony Monday was not cleared, or even seen, by Pentagon or White House officials before he gave it.
President Bush, who made a brief visit to Iraq a week ago, is expected to address the national later this week to announce his decisions on troop levels and other aspects of U.S. policy toward Iraq in the coming months.