WASHINGTON — This is not the way that Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, was expected to reappear before Congress.
Violence in Iraq recently had dropped to a nearly three-year low. The once-intransigent Iraqi parliament had passed some key pieces of legislation. Only five U.S. service members had been killed since October in Anbar province, a fraction of the toll a year ago.
But that was before the offensive that Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki launched in the southern port city of Basra and in Baghdad two weeks ago. Instead of ridding the city of rogue Shiite Muslim militias, the operation exposed the frailty of the U.S.-trained Iraqi military, emboldened rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr and his fighters and showcased Iran's powerful influence on Iraq's security and politics.
As if to underscore the point, fighting broke out again in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood Sunday, increasingly drawing U.S. troops into the conflict. Three American soldiers died in rocket and mortar attacks in the capital, and three others were killed in combat at other locations. More than 30 Iraqis have died in the fighting since Sunday, Iraqi police said.
On Tuesday, Petraeus will have to explain to legislators why the U.S. didn't know about the American-backed Iraqi government's offensive well in advance, and whether the drop in violence that followed the dispatch of additional U.S. forces to Iraq may have been temporary.
"Petraeus has to show that the effect of the surge has legs, momentum and direction," said Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, are to appear before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees to give congressionally mandated testimony about the U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Top Pentagon officials already have offered a preview of the testimony, saying that the security situation is too precarious for any major shift. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned that violence could easily return.
The military has called for an assessment period after the five combat brigades that were added to the American force in Iraq depart this summer, leaving roughly 140,000 troops there. But officials haven't said how long that assessment will take or what criteria they'll use to determine the size and timing of any further troop withdrawals.
Petraeus' testimony comes at an uncertain time in Iraq. In addition to Basra, U.S. forces are in the midst of a military offensive in the northern city of Mosul, where officials think that al Qaida elements still thrive.
In addition, U.S. casualty figures and Iraqi civilian deaths are up. According to icasualties.org, 38 American soldiers were killed in March, compared with 29 in February. Statistics that McClatchy compiled show that civilian casualties in Baghdad also rose from February to March. Meanwhile, the Iraqi parliament is still struggling to pass more of the legislation that the Bush administration called benchmarks for its strategy.
Throughout his tenure, Petraeus has promised candid testimony. And as in September, when he last testified, he's said he'll write his prepared remarks with limited input from the White House. President Bush is expected to give a nationwide address Wednesday.
On Capitol Hill, key legislators acknowledged that the U.S. troop buildup has reduced violence and created some breathing room for the Iraqis to govern, but said that Iraq's nascent government had failed to lead.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Friday that Maliki "has shown himself to be a political leader who is excessively sectarian, who is incompetent and who runs a corrupt administration."
Added Levin: "The purpose of the surge clearly has not been achieved."
For the military, the question is how to minimize what top officers say is an enormous strain on its equipment, training and reserves. Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff, has said that keeping 15 combat brigades in Iraq would further stretch an already stressed Army.
The Bush administration is planning to reduce combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to 12 months from 15 months, beginning this summer.
"The Iraqis have all kinds of time. The U.S. military is running out of time," said a senior Pentagon official who requested anonymity because he isn't authorized to speak for the military.
Ultimately, the testimony is about Iraq after the Bush administration leaves office next January. "What will be left for the next administration?" said Colin Kahl, an assistant security studies professor at Georgetown University.