WASHINGTON—The incoming military commander in Iraq told senators on Tuesday that he'll have only the minimum number of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers needed to bring security to Baghdad and that he's concerned about the reliability of some of the Iraqi forces.
Lt. Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing that while he wanted to get the additional 17,500 troops President Bush promised into Baghdad as soon as possible, he would consider ordering what chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called a "timeout" if the Iraqis fail to cooperate.
Petraeus said it would be late summer before it's clear whether the new security plan was working.
"The way ahead will be neither quick nor easy, and there undoubtedly will be tough days," he said.
The full Senate is likely to confirm Petraeus soon. Senators on the committee, including those who oppose the troop increase, wished him success and assured him of their support. But they also drilled him about whether the Iraqi government would live up to promises to help quell the violence and reach a political settlement.
Petraeus said he'd give Congress regular progress reports and promised "to tell my boss if I believe that the strategy cannot succeed at some point."
Petraeus said that in Baghdad, where sectarian warfare is raging, some American soldiers would live in Iraqi neighborhoods, instead of on large bases. They'd work closely with Iraqi forces, letting them take the lead when possible.
Some senators argued that American forces would be more vulnerable to attack. Others questioned whether Petraeus would have enough forces.
Petraeus needs 120,000 American and Iraqi troops in Baghdad to match the population-to-troop ratio laid out in the military's new counterinsurgency manual, the writing of which Petraeus recently directed. He said he'd have 85,000 once all the promised U.S. and Iraqi troops are in the capital. The rest, he said, would come from "tens of thousands" of private contract security workers and Iraqis who guard government ministries.
That assertion was greeted with skepticism.
"You wrote the book, general, but the policy is not by the book," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. "You're being asked to square the circle, to find a military solution to a political crisis."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., noted that the Iraq agency that guards government buildings has a reputation for involvement with death squads. "They're disreputable," Reed said. Petraeus agreed. "Some indeed," he said.
Petraeus also said he didn't know whether there would be enough support workers, including Arabic interpreters, to allow U.S. troops to conduct operations and train Iraqi troops as anticipated. "That is high on my list to determine," he said.
Clinton said she and some other members of the committee supported resolutions opposing the troop increase "not because we in any way embrace failure or defeat, but because we are trying to get the attention of our government and the government of Iraq."
"Success is our goal, and the question is, how?" said Levin, who also opposes the troop increase. The options, he said, are to give the Iraqi government "breathing space" or put pressure on them.
Petraeus declined to take a position. He said he "treasures the value of free and open debate, free speech" and has served in the military to "protect those great features of our democracy," but he also agreed with Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent Democrat from Connecticut, who said the resolutions could encourage America's enemies.
If confirmed, Petraeus will be undertaking his third tour of duty in Iraq. He commanded the 101st Airborne Division in the 2003 invasion and later oversaw training of Iraqi security forces.
Petraeus's official biography can be found at http://usacac.army.mil/cac/commander.asp
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.