WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus dashed hopes Tuesday that the U.S. could start significant troop withdrawals from Iraq any time soon, drawing the ire of legislators as he suggested that there would still be 100,000 troops there until the end of the Bush administration.
Seven months after telling Congress that he would offer a plan for reducing the troop presence, the general instead recommended a halt in troop withdrawals after roughly 30,000 "surge" troops leave this summer, followed by at least 45 days to consider any further pullbacks. The situation, he said, was too tenuous to do more than that.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was among the Democrats who decried Petraeus' recommendation as an open-ended commitment. Meanwhile, many Republican senators countered that a precipitous drawdown would undercut the gains from the U.S. troop build-up.
The sometimes-contentious hearing saw senators from both parties voicing frustration over the strains on U.S. troops and the limited political advances of the Iraqi government. Some raised their voices; others expressed exasperation. At the end of her questioning, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said: "I give up."
Under questioning, Petraeus said there was "no mathematical equation" for withdrawing troops, and he repeatedly called the situation "fragile and reversible." The closest he came to giving an answer was when Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., asked for a ranking of where the U.S. is on a 10-point continuum of progress. Petraeus said it was "six or seven."
But the general held firm. Further U.S. troop reductions would happen "when the conditions allow you to do that," Petraeus said.
Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the U.S. envoy to Iraq, said that more political reconciliation, which the U.S. believes is key to long-term stability, would occur when the Iraqi leadership "and their communities do not feel threatened."
Throughout their daylong testimony before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, Petraeus and Crocker tried to highlight recent security gains while asking lawmakers for more time to ensure those gains are sustainable.
They boasted that civilian casualties had fallen, al Qaida was weakened, the Iraqi army was stronger and more than 91,000 Iraqi citizens were armed and working with the U.S., mostly in Iraq's Sunni communities.
But they also were forced to acknowledge that the flawed Iraqi-led offensive in the mostly Shiite city of Basra showed that the Shiite-dominated south is on the precipice of an intra-sectarian war.
The Iraqi military all but collapsed within days of fighting rebel groups there, quashing hopes that the forces could soon take over security of their communities.
Moreover, violence has been rising in the capital. Twelve U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since Sunday, most in Baghdad province. And civilian deaths in Baghdad are rising, from 172 in February to 211 in March, according to statistics compiled by McClatchy. So far in April, 58 Iraqis have been killed in the capital, the statistics show.
The five combat surge brigades are scheduled to leave by the end of July, leaving 15 brigades, or roughly 140,000 troops, in Iraq.
Both Petraeus and Crocker spoke extensively about Basra, acknowledging that the Iraqi-led offensive exposed weaknesses in the Iraqi leadership and military but insisting that the gains of the U.S. troop buildup hadn't dissipated. Petraeus said the operation could have been better executed.
"Taken as a snapshot, with scenes of increasing violence and masked gunmen in the streets, it is hard to see how the situation supports the narrative of progress in Iraq," Crocker said. "When viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to combat groups in Basra has major significance."
Taking place amid a presidential election, the hearings were, at times, as much about politics as they were about U.S. military strategy. All three presidential candidates had a chance to question Petraeus and Crocker.
Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, an outspoken supporter of the troop buildup, stressed that the fundamentalist Sunni group al Qaida in Iraq still has a hold in the northern city of Mosul. Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked Petraeus to list conditions under which he would recommend a drawdown, a question he ducked. Sen. Barack Obama asked how much the U.S. must eliminate the al Qaida and Iranian threat before it can pull out forces.
"I am trying to get to an endpoint," Obama said.
Both Republicans and Democrats sought ways to compel the Iraqi government to take more control over its destiny. During the morning session, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said he was worried that without a drawdown date, "does that not take some of the impetus off of them to make the hard compromises that only they could make?"
"Where is the pressure we can put on Maliki?" Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., asked, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. "We can't have unconditional support here. We have to have conditional support."
When Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., asked how the U.S. expected to make political gains with fewer troops, Petraeus said the solution rested with Iraq's emerging provincial governments. But U.S. officials privately concede that it could take years for the 18 provinces to step up to the job.
The testimony covered a wide range of topics. Many senators insisted that the Iraqi government bear more of the costs of the war. Others questioned the stress of repeated tours on the Army and what the Iraq strategy meant for the U.S. efforts to eliminate the al Qaida threat outside Iraq.
Senators also asked about Iran's role in Iraq. Crocker and Petraeus carefully criticized Iraq's neighbor, saying that the government is arming rebel Shiite groups with weapons that are being launched toward the Green Zone. They didn't call for any immediate action against Iran, however. Crocker warned that if the U.S. draws down troops too quickly, Iran "would fill the vacuum." Petraeus added that the Iraqi government increasingly sees Iran's efforts in Iraq as meddlesome.