JUDY WOODRUFF: Army General David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and his diplomatic counterpart, Ambassador Ryan Crocker, returned to Capitol Hill today, seven months after their last assessment ordered by Congress.
Today, a key issue was whether the Bush administration would cut troop levels any further than those planned for by July, about 140,000 soldiers and Marines.
SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Our current open-ended commitment is an invitation to continuing dependency. An open-ended pause starting in July would be just the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The soldier and the diplomat cited improvements since last fall, but repeatedly warned those security gains are reversible.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially. Al-Qaida-Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows.
The capabilities of Iraqi security forces elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis in local security.
Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory, and innumerable challenges remain. Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us — and as I have repeatedly cautioned — the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible.
A number of factors have contributed to the progress that has been made. First, of course, has been the impact of increased numbers of coalition and Iraqi forces.
You’re well-aware of the U.S. surge. Less recognized is that Iraq has also conducted a surge, adding well over 100,000 additional soldiers and police to the ranks of its security forces in 2007 and slowly increasing its capability to deploy and employ these forces.
A second factor has been the employment of coalition and Iraqi forces in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations across the country, deployed together to safeguard the Iraqi people, to pursue al-Qaida-Iraq, to combat criminal elements and militia extremists, to foster local reconciliation, and to enable political and economic progress.
Another important factor has been the attitudinal shift among certain elements of the Iraqi population. Since the first Sunni awakening in late 2006, Sunni communities in Iraq increasingly have rejected Al Qaida-Iraq’s indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Petraeus outlined the military’s plans to draw down the current number of troops, about 160,000, to pre-surge levels by July.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and over time determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions.
This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit. This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable.
However, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still-fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.
Considering reduction in violence
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, like in September, Petraeus used charts to punctuate a general downward trend in violence and deaths. That decline had been steady until two weeks ago, when militias began battling for control of Basra. Located 140 miles south of Baghdad, more than 200 died in the fighting.
In his opening statement, Crocker pointed out flare-ups in fighting are not unexpected.
RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: Last September, I said that the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq was upwards, although the slope of that line was not steep. Developments over the last seven months have strengthened my sense of a positive trend.
Immense challenges remain, and progress is uneven and often frustratingly slow, but there is progress.
Almost everything about Iraq is hard. It will continue to be hard as Iraqis struggle with the damage and trauma inflicted by 35 years of totalitarian Baathist rule. But hard does not mean hopeless, and the political and economic progress of the past few months is significant.
These gains are fragile, however, and they are reversible. Americans have invested a great deal in Iraq in blood, as well as treasure, and they have the right to ask whether this is worth it, whether it is now time to walk away and let the Iraqis fend for themselves.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Chairman Carl Levin zeroed in on just how fast U.S. troops could come home.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: You do not use the word which Secretary Gates used twice, which is that it would be a brief pause. I assume that's intentional. Do you agree with Secretary Gates it will be a brief pause or not? Do you use the term "brief"?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: What Secretary Gates has described, as I understand it, is a brief period of consolidation and evaluation.
SEN. CARL LEVIN: He used the term brief pause. He used the term brief pause, General. At any rate, without going into that, specifically in February he used the term "brief pause." But you're not using the term "brief," is that correct?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I'm not using the word "brief," nor the word "pause." What I stated was a 45-day period for consolidation and evaluation as to examine the situation on the ground, do the battlefield geometry, consult with Ambassador Crocker on what might be called the political military calculus, and then conduct the assessments.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain asked about the readiness of the Iraqi military in light of the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: News reports indicate that over a thousand Iraqi army and police deserted or underperformed during that operation. This is four months after Basra achieved provincial Iraqi control, meaning that all provincial security had been transferred to Iraqi security forces.
What's the lesson that we're to draw from that, that a thousand Iraqi army and police deserted or underperformed?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, one lesson, Senator, is that relatively new forces -- what happened was, in one case, a brigade that literally had just come out of unit set fielding was pressed into operation.
The other lesson is a recurring one, and that is the difficulty of local police operating in areas where there is serious intimidation of themselves and of their families.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Suffice to say, it was a disappointment.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It was, although it is not over yet, Senator. In fact, subsequent to the early days, they then took control of the security at the different ports. They continued to carry out targeted raids. The operation is still very much ongoing, and it is by no means over.
Limiting Iran's influence
JUDY WOODRUFF: Another dominant theme was Iran's role in fomenting violence in Iraq. Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), Connecticut: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands -- excuse me -- hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It certainly is -- I do believe that is correct. Again, some of that also is militia elements who have been subsequently trained by these individuals, but there's no question about the threat that they pose and, again, about the way that it has been revealed more fully in recent weeks.
SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Though we all have questions about the recent Iraqi government initiative under Prime Minister Maliki's leadership in the south in Basra, is it not possible that there's something very encouraging about that initiative, which is that it represents a decision by the Maliki government in Baghdad to not tolerate the Iranian-backed militias, essentially running wild and trying to control the south of his country?
RYAN CROCKER: The reflection of that has been seen in the level of political unity behind the prime minister. It says -- or are more extensive than anything I've seen during my year there.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma asked if Iran was trying to duplicate its influence in Lebanon, backing the Hezbollah, in Iraq.
SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), Oklahoma: In your opening statement, you referred to, I believe, Ahmadinejad making the statement that, if something happens, that we leave precipitously, that there would be a vacuum, and he would fill that vacuum. Do either of you want to comment on what would happen if they were to fill that vacuum?
RYAN CROCKER: Because the general level of violence is down, we could see, I think, much more sharply defined what Iran's role is in the arming and equipping of these extremist militia groups.
And what it tells me is that Iran is pursuing, as it were, a Lebanization strategy, using the same techniques they used in Lebanon to co-opt elements of the local Shia community, and use them as, basically, instruments of Iranian force.
That also tells me, sir, that, in the event of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, the Iranians would just push that much harder.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, who's battling for the Democratic presidential nomination, made clear she supported withdrawing U.S. troops.
SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I remember well your being asked that -- how long would we continue to commit American lives and treasure if the Iraqis fail to make political gains? And in response, you said that if we reach that point in a year, you'd have to think very hard about it and it would be difficult to recommend the continuation of this strategy. And there clearly are limits to the blood and treasure we can expend in an effort.
Well, we're halfway through the year. And as many of us predicted, and as you yourself stated, we still do not see sufficient process. What conditions would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working?
And it seems apparent that you have a conditions-based analysis, as you set forth in your testimony, but the conditions are unclear. They certainly lack specificity. And the decision points with respect to these conditions are also vague.
So how are we to judge, General Petraeus, what the conditions are or should be and the actions that you and the administration would recommend pursuing based on them?
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Senator, what we have is a number of factors that we will consider by area, as we look at where we can make recommendations for further reductions beyond the reduction of the surge forces that will be complete in July.
These factors are fairly clear. There's obviously an enemy situation factor. There's a friendly situation factor, with respect to Iraqi forces, local governance, even economic and political dynamics, all of which are considered as the factors in making recommendations on further reductions.
Having said that, I have to say that, again, it's not a mathematical exercise. There is not an equation in which you have coefficients in front of each of these factors. It's not as mechanical as that.
At the end of the day, it really involves commanders sitting down, and also with their Iraqi counterparts and leaders in a particular area, and assessing where it is that you can reduce your forces so that you can, again, make a recommendation to make further reductions.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Testimony concluded with this observation from General Petraeus.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: We haven't seen any lights at the end of the tunnel. The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator, and the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible.
JUDY WOODRUFF: As the hearing adjourned in the early afternoon, protesters broke out in song, praying for the mothers of troops in Iraq.
Developing an exit strategy
JUDY WOODRUFF: After that four-and-a-half-hour morning marathon, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker sat down before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the afternoon.
SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: We're delighted to have you back. I don't know how delighted you are to be back.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Despite the initial warm welcome, Chairman Joe Biden said the plan, adding 20,000 troops, had failed in its political goal.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: The strategic purpose of our surge, in my view, has not been realized, and that is genuine power-sharing that gives Iraqi factions the confidence to pursue their interests peacefully.
What progress we've seen has come at the local level, with deal and truces made among tribes and tribe members and other grassroots groups. That is political progress, very different than was anticipated.
There's little sustainable progress, though, at the national level and, in my view, little evidence we're going to see any, any time soon.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Biden later picked up where many of his fellow Democrats on the Armed Services Committee left off, with a focus on the costs of war.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: We should debate the consequences of starting to leave Iraq. It's totally legitimate.
But more importantly is the debate we're not having. We should also talk about what the president refuses to acknowledge: the increasingly intolerable cost of staying in Iraq.
The risks of leaving Iraq are debatable. The cost of staying with 140,000 troops are totally knowable, and they get steeper and steeper and steeper every single day.
The continued loss of life and limb of our soldiers, the emotional and economic strain on our troops and their families due to repeated, extended tours, as Army Chief of Staff George Casey recently told us, the drain on our treasury, $12 billion every month, that we could spend on housing, education, health care or reducing the deficit, the impact on the readiness of our Armed Forces.
JUDY WOODRUFF: The committee's ranking Republican, Richard Lugar of Indiana, echoed the harsh assessments of experts who testified before the committee in the past week.
SEN. RICHARD LUGAR (R), Indiana: Iraq will be an unstable country for the foreseeable future. And if some type of political settlement can be reached, it will be inherently fragile.
Unless the United States is able to convert progress made thus far into a sustainable political accommodation that supports our long-term national security objectives in Iraq, this progress will have limited meaning.
We cannot assume that sustaining some level of progress is enough to achieve success, especially when we know that current American troop levels in Iraq have to be reduced and spoiling forces will be at work in Iraq.
We need a strategy that anticipates a political endgame and employs every plausible means to achieve it.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Both Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus presented prepared testimony identical to the morning session. It focused on security gains in Iraq and some political achievements, though both men tempered their assessments with notes of caution.
The committee then moved to questions. Chairman Biden focused on an exit plan.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: Tell me whether or not there are any conditions under which you would recommend us leaving, conditions meaning they got a lot worse, or would you just automatically say -- not automatically, but would you say, "We have to once again infuse more forces back into Iraq to settle it"?
RYAN CROCKER: Mr. Chairman, I really don't think you can have a productive conversation that is purely based on those hypotheticals. I mean...
SEN. JOE BIDEN: They're not hypotheticals.
RYAN CROCKER: How did it get that way? How did it get that way? I don't see that as likely, given what is lying ahead in terms of provincial elections, for example. I think that is where you're going to see both Sunnis and Shia focus, to prepare for...
SEN. JOE BIDEN: What happens if the elections don't get carried off because of violence?
RYAN CROCKER: Then we'll look at the circumstances and assess.
SEN. JOE BIDEN: I can't think of any circumstance where you fellows are likely to recommend, no matter how bad things got, where you would withdraw, but I may be mistaken. That's part of everyone's concern, at least mine.
Acheiving political progress
JUDY WOODRUFF: Nebraska's Chuck Hagel was one of several Republicans who was sharply critical of the way the war has gone.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: By any analysis, we're going to continue to see a bloody Iraq. We are going to continue to see, as you have both noted in your testimony, an Iraq that will ricochet from crisis to crisis.
And I am wondering, as I listen to both of you carefully, if we are not essentially holding our policy captive to Iraqi developments. Certainly, conditions as you've noted, General, dictate tactics, but I'm not sure that conditional response should dictate policy.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Hagel pressed Crocker on the diplomatic surge, as the ambassador termed it, and its apparent lack of results in the region.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: What are we doing? I don't see Secretary Rice doing any Kissinger-esque flying around. Where is the diplomatic surge, in my opinion, the one core issue that in the end is going to make the difference as to the outcome of Iraq and will certainly have an awful lot to do with how we come out of this? So where is the surge? What are you talking about?
RYAN CROCKER: The neighbor's process is predicated on biannual ministerial meetings. So in November in Istanbul, April, a little bit ahead of six months in Kuwait, that's the schedule we run to. The first ministerial was last May in Sharm el Sheikh.
In between the ministerials, there are meetings of working groups on energy, border security, and refugees. The border security, the energy, and refugee working groups have met over the course of the last month. Border security will meet, I think, in this coming week. So there is activity.
Does there need to be more activity on the part of the region? I think clearly yes. And I noted in my statement, the Arabs need to be more engaged. We have pressed them on that. I have made a swing through the region. Of course, the president and the vice president were both on regional tours in the first part of this year.
Ultimately, again, the Arabs are going to have to make their own decisions, but they also need to understand that this is important to their interests. It's not a favor to us or to Iraq. So that is a message we continue to press them on.
Similarly with Iran, as I noted in my statement, we have taken a position that we are prepared to discuss face-to-face with the Iranian security in Iraq at Iraqi request. The Iraqis have announced that they would like to see another meeting occur. We have said we're ready to participate; it's now up to the Iranians.
Again, we can't compel the neighbors to behave constructively and positively, but we can certainly send a message that it's in their interest to do so.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Republican George Voinovich of Ohio showed the frustration in the president's own political party.
SEN. GEORGE VOINOVICH (R), Ohio: Condoleezza Rice should get together with you guys and she should work day in and day out to let them know, "Folks, we're on our way out." And I just wonder: Do you understand that, that that's where we're at?
We have somebody sitting across the table here, maybe the next president of the United States. And the American people have had it up to here.
And, you know, we appreciate the sacrifice that you've made and your families have made. Lives have changed forever. But the truth of the matter is -- and I'm sure your guys and women understand it.
Do you know something? We haven't sacrificed one darn bit in this war, not one, never been asked to pay for a dime, except for the people we lost.
And I'd like to know: What do you think about the idea of really coming up with a surge during this next 10 months and let them know, you know, it's going to be over here, folks, and you'd better get at it?
RYAN CROCKER: Well, Senator, I appreciate the -- you know, the sense of frustration that you articulate. I share it. I kind of live it every day. I mean, the reality is it is hard in Iraq, and there are no light switches to throw that are going to go dark to light.
JUDY WOODRUFF: It was late in the day when committee member and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama got his chance to ask questions.
SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I'm trying to get to an endpoint. That's what all of us have been trying to get to.
And, see, the problem I have is, if the definition of success is so high, no traces of al-Qaida or no possibility of reconstitution, a highly effective Iraqi government, a democratic, multiethnic, multi-sectarian, functioning democracy, no Iranian influence -- at least not the kind that we don't like -- then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years.
If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo, but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe.
And that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at and we haven't been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.
RYAN CROCKER: And that's because, Senator, it is a -- I mean, I don't like to sound like a broken record...
SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I understand.
RYAN CROCKER: ... but this is hard and this is complicated. I think that when Iraq gets to the point that it can carry forward its further development without a major commitment of U.S. forces, with still a lot of problems out there, but where they and we would have a fair certitude that, again, they can drive it forward themselves without significant danger of having the whole thing slip away from them again, then clearly our profile, our presence diminishes markedly.
JUDY WOODRUFF: General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker are set to appear on the other side of the Capitol tomorrow before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committee.