WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus, the American commander in Iraq, told Congress on Monday that he's recommended the withdrawal of 30,000 U.S. forces from Iraq by mid-July.
That would still leave about 130,000 there, as many as when President Bush announced his "surge" in January. Petraeus said he couldn't yet say when the rest could be withdrawn. Polls show that some 60 percent of Americans want to set a timetable to bring the troops home.
Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, predicted that Iraq eventually would take over its own security and form a stable, democratic government, though, as Petraeus put it, "doing so will be neither quick nor easy."
"There are no switches to flip that will cause the politics to come magically together," Crocker said. "This is something Iraqis are going to have to work through," and it's impossible to say when they will, he added.
Their testimony of more than six hours — interrupted repeatedly by antiwar protesters who were hauled away by police — came as congressional Democrats prepare to push anew to force a speedier withdrawal from Iraq.
Leading Democrats rejected Petraeus' vision.
"Removing a brigade is nothing but a political whisper, and it is unacceptable to the American people and a majority of Congress," said Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which sponsored the hearing with the House Armed Services Committee.
But the two top U.S. officials in Iraq firmly rejected the Democrats' main ideas, as well as the suspicion that the White House coordinated their testimony.
"I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress," Petraeus said, his authority enhanced by the four stars on each shoulder of his uniform and the rows of military ribbons on his chest.
Petraeus opposed Democrats' suggestions of limiting the U.S. mission to anti-terrorism, training and protection of American assets as inadequate.
And Crocker said he didn't think the threat of withdrawal would make Iraqi politicians work together more toward a political solution: "...My view is that it would make them less inclined to compromise and not more," because they'd be looking at "how they're going to survive and how they're going to get through the coming massive sectarian conflict."
Petraeus said he submitted his recommendations two weeks ago and that his boss, Adm. William Fallon, the head of Central Command, and the joint service chiefs, the president's top military advisers, supported them.
If approved, he said, a Marine Expeditionary Unit of about 2,000 could leave Iraq later this month and a brigade combat team numbering 3,500 to 4,000 would be sent home in mid-December. Two more Marine battalions would leave over the first seven months of 2008, bringing U.S. forces down to the pre-surge level they were in January — 15 brigade combat teams, or roughly 130,000 people.
Petraeus said more force reductions would be made later, but he added that he couldn't say yet how many or when because too much could happen unexpectedly in the meantime. He said he'd make recommendations on further withdrawals in March.
Petraeus said U.S. troops could be withdrawn safely on his proposed schedule "without jeopardizing security gains we have fought so hard to achieve" because Iraqi security forces are making progress toward being able to take over. They've improved, he said, "albeit slowly and amid continuing concerns about sectarian tendencies of some elements in their ranks."
Petraeus said the main military gains from Bush's surge of 30,000 troops have been:
_ A decrease in the number of "security incidents" in Iraq in eight of the past 12 weeks.
_ Attacks on al Qaida in Iraq forces that eliminated some of its sanctuaries and "gained the initiative in many areas." Iraqis in other areas beyond Anbar province are now turning against al Qaida in Iraq, he said.
_ The capture of "numerous" leaders of Iranian-supported Shiite militia groups.
_ A decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad and across Iraq, even though violence remains "at troubling levels."
Contradicting Petraeus, a report last week from the Government Accountability Office, the independent auditing arm of Congress, concluded that daily attacks against civilians remained about the same from February through July.
GAO head David S. Walker said sources within the Bush administration don't agree with each other on violence in Iraq. He added that he didn't support the Pentagon's measuring methodology.
Petraeus said that al Qaida in Iraq was the "most pressing threat" because it's responsible for mass violence that ignites sectarian fighting. Al Qaida in Iraq is a group made up mainly of foreign fighters and represents a small percentage of anti-U.S. forces in Iraq.
Asked if Iraq is an important front in the war on terrorism, Petraeus replied: "I think a defeat of al Qaida in Iraq would be a huge step forward in the global war on terror, and I think failing to do that would be a shot of adrenaline to the global Islamic extremist movement."
Democrats weren't persuaded.
"Up is not down, the earth is not flat and the surge is not working," said Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., in a statement.
"No amount of sugarcoating and spin can change one simply fact: Four years after the president's invasion of Iraq, our troops are caught in the midst of a civil war with no end in sight, and it's up to the U.S. Congress to use the power of the purse to force the president to bring them home," said Rep. Lynne Woolsey, D-Calif., co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
As the hearing opened, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, told Petraeus and Crocker that they'd have to explain "why we should keep sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis won't make the tough sacrifices leading to reconciliation. ...Mr. Ambassador, why should we in Congress expect the next six months to be any different?"
Crocker said the laws that Iraq must pass to create a government that could end violence were "extremely complex" and that Iraqis hadn't decided what final form their country would take.
"It's going to be difficult. It's going to take time," the ambassador said.
He also tried to dampen expectations about the 18 benchmarks for military, political and economic reforms that have become the focus of U.S. measurements of Iraqi progress. The GAO said Iraq had fully met only three benchmarks, partially met four and failed to meet 11.
"I frankly do not expect that we are going to see rapid progress through these benchmarks," Crocker said.
He said progress was being made in some areas of Iraq even though the national government is falling short of the benchmarks. For example, he said, the central government accepted more than 1,700 young men from the Sunni area of Abu Ghraib west of Baghdad, including former members of insurgent groups, to join the national security forces.
The Shiite-dominated central government also has contacted thousands of former Iraqi army members, who were mainly Sunnis, and offered them retirement or jobs.
Crocker said the examples showed "the seeds of reconciliation are being planted."