Iraq hearing live blog: Second hearing ends

McClatchy NewspapersApril 7, 2008 

US NEWS USIRAQ-HEARINGS 1 MCT

Army General David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, left, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker wait to deliver their testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on the state of the war in Iraq.

CHUCK KENNEDY — Chuck Kennedy / MCT

6:55 p.m. 4/8/08

Sen. Biden adjourned the hearing at 6:51, telling the two witnesses, ``You guys have an incredibly difficult job.''

Earlier, Ambassador Crocker said he ``would not hesitate'' in cancelling the State Departments contract with the Blackwater USA security firm if a pending FBI investigation finds evidence of wrongdoing in the shooting deaths of 17 Iraqis by Blackwater guards.

The guards opened fire on Iraqis in a Baghdad square in September but said they were fired on first. The North Carolina-based security company was re-licensed last week but the shootings remain under investigation by the FBI.

Crocker, under questioning by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said private contractors are needed to help provide security but told committee members that steps have been taken to prevent abuses.

To absolutely no one's suprise, the questioning was friendlier from Republicans, harsher among Democrats.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., appeared sympathetic, telling the two officials, ``Hard does not mean hopeless.'' Minutes earlier, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., asserted that Congress will not continue ``an open checkbook'' and scolded the witnesses for not defining ``the end game of success.''

Ambassador Crocker said Iraq did three times better executing its budget for 2007 than it did the year before, a sign that the struggling country is figuring out how to handle money.

He responded to questions from Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, who followed several other senators today in saying that the war is quite the burden on American taxpayers.

"Are (Iraqis) getting better at deploying resources they have, to replace what we're paying for?" Isakson asked.

Crocker says they are. Still, he added, "We've got some ways to go."

5:58 p.m. 4/8/08 Iran has come up quite a bit this afternoon. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., demanded to know why Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad "is given the red carpet treatment" and kisses on the cheek when he comes to Iraq "while our president has to sneak in there in the dead of night."

"Presumably, he doesn't have to worry about Iranian-backed extremist militias," Crocker responded, explaining the intense security around President Bush's Iraq visits.

Crocker also pointed out that Vice President Dick Cheney received a warm reception during a recent Iraq visit. "Did he get kissed?" Biden asked, drawing chuckles. Crocker, smiling, recalled that Cheney in fact did get kissed.

5:38 p.m. 4/8/08 Obama wants a timetable for withdrawal and a diplomatic surge to include Iran.

In his remarks, he reiterated that he thinks the United States' invasion was a "massive, strategic blunder," and said that the two problems that are evident is the existence of Al Qaida in Iraq and increased Iranian influence. He said both are the direct result of that original decision to invade.

He said he wasn't blaming the two officials before him, but said, "You are cleaning up the mess afterward."

He insisted he was not asking for "precipitous withdrawal," but rather a measured timetable for a pullout of troops.

Obama also went way over his seven-minute time limit -- taking at least twice that time -- though he wasn't the only senator to run afoul of the clock.

5:30 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat and candidate for president, wants to know whether Iraq will ever be truly free of Al Qaida.

"If one of our criteria for success is to make sure Al Qaida does not reconstitute themselves in iraq... at what point do we say they cannot reconstitute themslves... or do we say, they're not going to be effective and the Iraqis can handle themselves?" Obama asked.

Our goal, he said, isn't to hunt down and eliminate every trace, but to make sure Al Qaida can't use Iraq as a base.

Answered Petraeus: "That's exactly right."

5:18 p.m. 4/8/08 Obama's on.

Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida gave up his slot to give Obama a jump (before the evening news, by the way) because Obama had a scheduling problem.

5:15 p.m. 4/8/08 Before the prostesters were ejected, Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, nailed the frustrations that surely are nagging at military leaders working in Iraq.

"We're dependent upon a government we have really no control over to perform equally well in order for us to be victorious -- I don't know if I want to use that word. To be successful."

Crocker answered that Iraqis want to be in charge of their security. He mentioned the recent decision from Prime Minister Maliki to send Iraqi troops into Basra to go after militias.

The Basra action got a lot of criticism this morning, where senators repeatedly pointed out that 1,000 Iraqi forces fled or underperformed.

But Crocker saw a silver lining. "I think that's an important example of Iraqi willingness, ability aside... to set their own affairs."

5:07 p.m. 4/8/08 Chairman Biden just asked the Capitol Police to remove protesters who are chattering in the back of the hearing room. They get up, black shrouds, white masks and all, and exit.

Overheard on television: "Isn't this a public hearing anymore?"

McClatchy's Nancy Youssef reports from the hearing room that there is too much talking, hissing, clapping and commentary, both for and against the senators.

Some of the protesters are allowed to remain. A moment later Sen. Barbara Boxer, during her questioning, follows up: "Could you please cool it back there?"

4:47 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, wants to know: Should our top national security priority be the threat posed by Al Qaida?

Crocker answers: "Clearly Al Qaida is our strategic threat. We, of course, have to look at this from Iraq."

And Feingold asks Petraeus: Why does our intelligence say things are actually worse worldwide with Al Qaida than before?

Says Petraeus: "Senator, I'm talking about Al Qaida in Iraq."

Feingold also says that Osama Bin Laden might be achieving his goals of bankrupting the United States by watching the country spend billions of dollars by staying in Iraq.

4:39 p.m. 4/8/08 Kerry says he takes umbrage at the idea that skeptics about the current surge just "want to pull the plug." He points out the details of Iraq's dysfunctional government, including its inability to provide basic services.

He wants to know whether the open-endedness of the United States' involvement doesn't just embolden Iraqis that they don't have to step up?

Crocker answers: "It's something I've thought about. Are there alternatives?"

Kerry asks Petraeus: If you couldn't achieve political reconciliation with 160,000 troops, how can you do it with fewer troops?

4:30 p.m. 4/8/08 The hearings not only provided a forum for three current presidential candidates but one former contender also got some exposure. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the Democrats' unsuccessful nominee from 2004, got his shot as member of the foreign relations committee. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, complimented Petraeus for his service, saying, "You've done about as good a job playing a tough hand as somebody could." But he also expressed concerns that an open-ended U.S. commitment keep Iraqis from stepping up and taking firm control of their country.

4:15 p.m. 4/8/08 So what can we expect this afternoon? Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee got their turn around 2:30 p.m., facing the prospect of a long afternoon as Petraeus and Crocker cited familiar themes from the previous hearing. Each member had an alloted seven minutes, allowing plenty of opportunity for speech-making. The most anticipated moment - questioning from presidential candidate Barack Obama, D-Ill. - was a long way off, perhaps 5, 6 p.m. or even later. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., ranking member of the foreign relations committee, asked somewhat rhetorically about what would happen if the United States withdrew from Iraq. "What are the dire circumstances'' that would result, Lugar asked. Plenty, Petraeus responded. Al Qaida would seek to regain lost ground while Iran would accelerate efforts to spread its influnce. Another danger, he said: "A resumption of the violence that tore Iraq apart in 2006 and 2007."

4:07 p.m. 4/8/08 Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker are back before the Senate this afternoon, this time in the Foreign Relations committee.

Petraeus spent several minutes repeating his testimony from this morning's hearing in Armed Services, then settled in for an afternoon of questions.

Among the first came from Sen. Joe Biden, the committee chairman and a Delaware Democrat. He wanted to know: On a scale of 1 to 10, how much progress are we making in Iraq?

"About a 6 or 7," Petraeus answered.

2:00 p.m. 4/8/08 After four-and-a-half hours, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan gavels the hearing to a close.

Demonstrators dressed in black launch into a protest song about grieving mothers as onlookers and journalists file out.

Gen. Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker and their entourages avoid the protesters. Instead, they go around the dais and exit through the door reserved for senators and staff.

Next hearing for the two men comes at 2:30 p.m. today, before the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

There, Sen. Barack Obama will get his chance to question the nation's top leaders in Iraq. Obama is far down the list in seniority, though, and may not get his chance until this evening.

1:56 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a former Democrat and now an independent, is an Iraq hawk and big supporter of McCain. He lashed out at his former party colleagues during the hearing, acidly describing them as "hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and most of all, speak no progress in Iraq."

"I wish," the former 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate said, "we could come to point where we could have an agreement on the facts that you are presenting to us. The military progress."

1:51 p.m. 4/8/08 As the hearing wound down after more than four hours, Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana was the last senator to pose questions to Petraeus and Crocker, and he offered what was likely the most honest and witty comment:

"I've never seen so many people glad to see me. I'm the last one."

1:49 p.m. 4/8/08 The backers of the surge in Iraq have their own theme this morning, and Sen. John Cornyn just put it pretty succinctly, calling it "the consequences of failure."

Sen. Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, warned about the loss of American credibility abroad.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Americans are safer when Muslims in Iraq fight alongside them.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and presidential candidate, warned of Al Qaida's resurgence, of civil war and the possibility of genocide.

And Cornyn asked whether failure in Iraq wouldn't bring about the type of failed state as seen in Afghanistan, where Al Qaida has seen a resurgence.

"There are enormous interests at stake," Petraeus answered.

1:28 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Claire McCaskill wanted to talk about the "financial sacrifice" of the American taxpayer.

"We have a massive budget deficit and yet we are paying and (the Iraqis) are not."

The Missouri Democrat said the U.S. is paying Iraqi groups millions of dollars to keep them as allies, but they could quickly turn against us if the money stops flowing. She told Petraeus that money should come out of the Iraqi government's wallet.

McCaskill asked Crocker why the Iraqis shouldn't pay to offset the costs of operating the temporary U.S. bases, since they would eventually take them over, "if and when we ever get out of Iraq." She said that Germany, Japan and South Korea do that for former U.S. bases in their countries.

That either struck Crocker as a new idea, or he was just buying time.

"It's an interesting idea," he said. "We'll need to take that aboard and see what might be possible."

1:24 p.m. 4/8/08 In his questions a few minutes ago, Sen. Wicker asked Petraeus whether troops in Iraq are watching today's hearing testimony.

"Are they watching us today?" Wicker asked. "What do they want to hear from us -- from the representatives of the American people?"

Petraeus responded that troops do seem to watch such hearings. He knows because he receives e-mails from those serving at all ranks, he said.

"They do watch this more than I thought they would," Petraeus said. "They just want the American people to appreciate what they're doing, to support their service and to ensure that they and their families will be looked after."

1:19 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Republican from Georgia, is among the last senators asking questions.

Meanwhile, the room is nearly empty, reports McClatchy's Nancy Youssef. In addition to McCaskill, the only senators remaining are Democrats Claire McCaskill, Jim Webb and Carl Levin, and Republicans Chambliss and John Cornyn.

1:14 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi wants to talk about the success in Iraq. Using most of his time to make a lengthy statement about the surge's success, he warns about what would happen should the strategy in Iraq change.

"The question now before this Congress and this country is do we proceed on with this proven strategy of success, or, in the face of this demonstrated progress, do we leave with our goals not yet attained and secure?" he asked.

Wicker compared the unpopular effort in Iraq to former Presidents Abraham Lincoln and George Washington and the wars they fought for freedom.

Wicker also asked Petraeus to talk about what inspires today's troops. Petraeus answered that they are "the new greatest generation."

He continued: "In combat, I think they serve most of all for the trooper on their left and right and feel very privileged that that individual is a fellow American soldier, a fellow coalition soldier, in some cases an Iraqi soldier. It's a special feeling, a unique fraternity."

1:07 p.m. 4/8/08 There's been a lot talk about money during the hearings. Senators have asked when the Iraqis are going to start paying for training, fuel and other expenses.

"It just doesn't make sense for us to be the financier of first resort," said Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat.

So it's probably worth noting that the war has cost taxpayers $600 billion. President Bush has requested another $200 billion. Monthly, the United States is spending about $12 billion in Iraq, according to Congressional Research Service.

Meanwhile, CBS News reported last year that $1 billion worth of equipment given to Iraqi security forces was missing. In addition, congressional hearings last year revealed $10 billion had been lost due to waste and mismanagement.

12:54 p.m. 4/8/08 A few senators had left the room by the time Sen. Hillary Clinton got her crack at Petraeus and Crocker. Sen. John McCain, for example, left about an hour before she began her questions.

Sen. John Warner left, then returned for Clinton's questions, then left again afterward, reports McClatchy's Nancy Youssef, who is in the hearing room on Capitol Hill.

But the room is really emptying out now that Clinton is finished. There is a mass exodus out of the chamber. Photographers, observers in the visitors gallery and journalists are leaving in droves, Youssef reports.

12:48 p.m. 4/8/08 Clinton finally got a chance to ask questions three hours into the hearing, after giving a speech for the first four minutes. Included in that was this comment: "It's time to begin the orderly process of removing our troops."

Crocker and Petraeus looked on impassively.

Then she got to her questions. What would reveal that current strategy was "not working," Clinton asked.

"What conditions would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working?" she asked. "It seems apparent you have a conditions-based analysis... but the conditions are unclear. They certainly lack specificity."

"There's not a clinical equation," Petraeus answered. He said that commanders would have to sit down, assess their resources and measure the "battlefield geometry."

"There's even a sort of political/military calculus that you have to consider," Petraeus said.

12:38 p.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Hillary Clinton began her questions with a lengthy statement about Iraq.

"It might well be irresponsible to continue a policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again at a great cost to our seucrity and men and women who wear the uniform of the U.S. military."

She added that the point of the surge "was to create the space for Iraqis to do reconciliation process." But she added that Petraeus has acknowledged in the past that there has not been "significant progress" in Iraq.

"Our current strategy in Iraq has very real costs," Clinton continued.

12:27 p.m. 4/8/08

Petraeus was asked repeatedly about Iranian influence. Sen. John Thune, R.S.D., wanted ``who is really in charge of the Shia militias. The Mahdi Army or the Iranians.''

``The hand of Iran was very clear in recent weeks,'' Petraeus said. `` He said it backfired on Iran and generated greater concern among Iraq leaders about possible Iranian influence.

12:12 p.m. 4/8/08

Is the United States paying for Iraqi forces' fuel costs?

That's what Sen. Collins suggested this morning in her questions. She talked about the high costs of training and equipping Iraqi troops. Then, she said she had been told that the United States was even paying for the forces’ fuel costs. Given that Iraq stands to gain from its oil reserves, she asked Crocker whether this was an issue he’s doing something about.

Answered Crocker: "Senator, it is. And that is something that both General Petraeus and I are engaged in."

Presidential candidate watch: Sen. John McCain’s chair in the Senate hearing room is empty, reports McClatchy’s Nancy Youssef, who watching Petraeus and Crocker testify on Capitol Hill. McCain left about 20 minutes ago.

Also, Sen. Hillary Clinton is four senators away from getting her chance to question Petraeus and Crocker. She is waiting her turn.

Petraeus acknowledged the toll on soldiers and their families but said the combat troops in Iraq ``recognize the importance of what they are doing'' and take pride in their service.

He noted that the Third Infantry Division, now in its third tour, has already surpassed its annual re-enlistment goal half-way throiugh the current fiscal year.

Under questioning from Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the general said that Iraqi security forces are continually assuming greater responsibility while acknowledging that they ``still need assistance'' from the United States.

``They are already shouldering an enormous burden,'' he said. ``It's being handed to them more all the time.''

"Gentlemen, Ive got a series of questions," Sen. Bill Nelson told Petraeus and Crocker.

But if they inwardly breathed a sigh of relief that the Florida Democrat would not be able to get to all of them within his allotted six minutes, no such luck.

Nelson told them that he's also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where the general and ambassador get to go through the whole execise all over again.

"I'll look forward to picking this up this afternoon," Nelson reassured them.

11:29 a.m. 4/8/08 Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, wants to know whether America is safer.

Petraeus takes a while to point out that the "seeds of democracy have been planted in the cradle of civilization." He talks about how only history will determine the outcome. He says the important question really is how the United States should achieve its ojectives in Iraq. He talks about the challenges of sectarian conflict, about Iranian influence and the global economy.

"I do believe we've made progress in Iraq," Petraeus continues. He starts to talk again about his recommendations, when Warner interrupts.

"My time is running short, and it's a fairly simple question," Warner says. "Does that translate into greater security for those of us at home? Can you tell us now in simple language: Is it worth it? And is it making it safer here at home?"

That was the same question Warner asked Petraeus and Crocker when they appeared before the committee last fall.

Petraeus answers: "Sir, I think it is worth it."

11:23 a.m. 4/8/08

11:05 a.m. 4/8/08

"Senator," Petraeus said, "they are fighting and dying for their country in substantial numbers. Their losses are three times our numbers. They are very much dying for their country."

10:51 a.m. 4/8/08 Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the committee asked the first question. The Michigan lawmaker said Petraeus wanted to take 45 days to evaluate any decision to bring troops home. He said it sounded like an "open-ended pause."

"It seems to me....a plan which has no end to it, " Levin said.

Levin said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates talked about a "brief pause."

"Do you agree with Secretary Gates that it will be a brief pause or not?"

"Sir," Petraeus replied, "I'm not using the word brief nor the word pause."

The general said he would use a "political military calculus" to assess the point when "conditions are met to recommend a reduction of forces. If they are, "That's what we'll do."

"Can you give us an estimate?" Levin pressed

"Sir, I can't."

10:35 a.m. 4/8/08 Crocker warns that security improvements could offer new challenges. As provincial elections are held, for example, there could be new strains within Iraq, he says.

He says some violence represents changing authorities within the Shiite community. He warns of a continued "fragility" within Iraq, and says that any interruption in reduction in violence should be be read as a backslide.

Also: Among those sitting behind Petraeus and Crocker is Phil Reeker, the U.S. Baghdad embassy spokesman, reports McClatchy's Jonathan Landay.

10:25 a.m. 4/8/08 Petraeus recommended that the United States withdraw the so-called surge combat forces from Iraq by July and then undertake a 45-day period "of consolidation and evaluation'' to determine further strategy on the ground.

"This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit,'' the four-star general said in his prepared testimony before the Senate Armed Services.

Petraeus said the approach "does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable'' as demanded by opponents to the war but "provides the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so had and sacrified so much to achieve.''

10:22 a.m. 4/8/08 Ambassador Ryan Crocker offers his statement. He talks about Shiite clerical leadership's "quiet but important role" in reconciliation. He speaks of security improvements in past months and how they have encouraged "humanity that transcends sectarian divisions."

He describes how Sunni residents offered food and water to Shiite pilgrims at the end of February, a marked difference from the sectarianism he saw in Iraq a year ago.

Crocker said he concludes from the fall in violence that "the strategy that began with the surge is working." He said this does not mean work there should be "open-ended," but that he is working to negotiate a long-term bilateral agreement between Iraq and United States.

10:15 a.m. 4/8/08 Petraeus repeatedly cites "Al Qaida Iraq" in his testimony. He talks about what Al Qaida Iraq wants to accomplish, how Osama Bin Laden has pushed for instability in Iraq and the challenges in defeating Al Qaida Iraq.

"We must maintain relentless pressure on the organization," he says.

He pulls out another of his many charts, this one showing dozens of keys to defeating Al Qaida Iraq, from jobs to new services to various military operations.

10:12 a.m. 4/8/08 Gen. Petraeus singled out Iran and sectarian violence as two key elements that continue to plague peacemaking efforts in Iraq.

He said Iran's "lethal support" was a "longterm threat to a "democratic Iraq." The "special groups" were funded, trained and directed by Iran and responsible for recent rocket and mortar attacks on Baghdad. Sectarian violence, he said was a "cancer."

But while Iraqi security force still need to be improved, their recent performance has been "solid."

9:57 a.m. 4/8/08 McCain said progress is happening in Iraq, that reconciliation has moved forward. He said much more needs to be done, and Iraqis need to show leadership to rebuild their own country.

"Today, it is possible to talk with real hope and optimisim about Iraq," McCain said. "We're no longer staring into an abyss of defeat."

Instead, he said, the United States is looking at success that would pose no threat to Iraq's neighbors, that lets Iraqis take responsiblity and that will allow American troops to return home "with honor." "That's what I hope every American desires for Iraq," he says.

He said if the United States withdraws, "we will exchange for this victory a defeat that is terrible and long-lasting." He warned that Al-Quaeda would declare victory and would push for a full-scale civil war. He warned of the potential for genocide and Iranian involvement.

He concluded: "Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq. We must choose instead to succeed."

9:47 a.m. 4/8/08 Levin gives two thumps with his gavel to quiet protesters in the back of the room. McCain is five minutes into his opening statement. Levin tells protesters to "sit down, no more demonstrations," warning he'll call Capitol Police if they continue.

McCain chuckles. "I have had this experience previously, Mr. Chairman."

9:42 a.m. 4/8/08 Less than a minute into his opening statement, John McCain calls Crocker and Petraeus "two patriotic Americans."

9:40 a.m. 4/8/08 Petraeus has a grim look on his face as Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, reads his opening statement.

Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, calls the Iraq invasion "haphazardly" done and says President Bush has ignored recommendations of military commanders. Levin hits the skyrocketing oil and gas prices, the billions of surplus dollars in Iraqi coffers that aren't being spent and the billions in United States expenses on Iraq reconstruction.

Petraeus sits with a soldier's posture, his eyes wide and lips drawn tight.

9:30 a.m. 4/8/08 McClatchy's Nancy Youssef reports that Ambassador Ryan Crocker arrived at 8:50 a.m., bringing with him an entourage of 14 people, one of whom carried a large cardboard box of papers.

When Petraeus walked in about 9:25 a.m., the protesters outside shouted "Stop the killing!" and held up hands stained with red food coloring. Petraeus was quickly obscured by the throng of photographers.

9:25 a.m. 4/8/08

The theater's on. As McClatchy reported this morning, few expect to see Gen. David Petraeus' testimony today to bring about much policy change on Iraq. But it gives the presidential frontrunners perhaps their last chance to question President Bush's point man on the war.

Dozens of people lined the hall outside the Senate hearing room in the Dirksen building this morning waiting to get inside before it kicks off at 9:30 a.m.

Among them were several women in black shrouds and white pancake makeup, holding signs proclaiming the "Surge of Sin" and the "Surge of Sorrow." McClatchy's Dave Montgomery talked with Liz Hourichan of Arizona, who said she had been in line since 7 a.m., two hours before the hearing's scheduled start.

Hourichan carried a baby doll made of white sheets and sloshed with red food coloring. She said it represented 2-year-old Tabarik Qadar, a child killed March 29 in Iraq.

"John McCain doesn't represent me," Hourichan said of her Arizona senator.

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