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Petraeus Touts Iraq Progress, Discusses Troop Drawdown

September 10, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: The long-awaited and much-anticipated report from the top American general in Iraq and his diplomatic counterpart got off to a contentious and confusing start.

REP. IKE SKELTON (D), Missouri: We’re going to have no disturbances in this room, and those that disturb are immediately asked to be escorted out. Do that right now. Out they go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was just the first of several interruptions from antiwar protesters. Army General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker testified before an unusual joint hearing of more than 100 members of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees, testimony ordered by the Congress.

Even before the witnesses spoke, the committee leaders reflected the partisan divide within Congress.

REP. TOM LANTOS (D), California: The situation in Iraq cries out for a dramatic change of course. We need to get out of Iraq for that country’s sake and for our own. It is time to go and to go now.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (R), Florida: Radical Islam sees Iraq as a central front in their war on freedom. The enemies of the emerging Iraqi representative government are the enemies of democracies everywhere. They are our enemies, as well.

Do we fight and defeat this enemy? We must not fool ourselves into believing that we can accommodate our enemies and thereby secure their cooperation. Accommodation has been tried in the past with catastrophic consequences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then the sound system broke down.

REP. IKE SKELTON: I’m told that it will take five minutes to fix the microphone. We’ll take a five-minute break.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One hour into the hearing, the general and the ambassador finally got their turn to speak. Petraeus rebutted reports that the White House had drafted his testimony.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: At the outset, I would like to note that this is my testimony. Although I have briefed my assessment and recommendations to my chain of command, I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House, or the Congress…

Assessment of military goals

Gen. David Petraeus
Commander, Multi-national Force Iraq
The military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He then gave his assessment about the military situation in Iraq since the infusion of 30,000 more U.S. troops.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met. In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena.

Though the improvements have been uneven across Iraq, the overall number of security incidents in Iraq has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, with the number of incidents in the last two weeks at the lowest level seen since June 2006.

One reason for the decline in incidents is that coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to al-Qaida Iraq. Though al-Qaida and affiliates in Iraq remain dangerous, we have taken away a number of their sanctuaries and gained the initiative in many areas.

We have also disrupted Shia militia extremists, capturing the head and numerous other leaders of the Iranian-supported special groups, along with a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative supporting Iran's activities in Iraq.

Coalition and Iraqi operations have helped reduce ethno-sectarian violence, as well, bringing down the number of ethno-sectarian deaths substantially in Baghdad and across Iraq since the height of the sectarian violence last December.

The number of overall civilian deaths has also declined during this period, although the numbers in each area are still at troubling levels.

Iraqi security forces have also continued to grow and to shoulder more of the load, albeit slowly and amid continuing concerns about the sectarian tendencies of some elements in their ranks. In general, however, Iraqi elements have been standing, and fighting, and sustaining tough losses, and they have taken the lead in operations in many areas.

Additionally, in what may be the most significant development of the past eight months, the tribal rejection of al-Qaida that started in Anbar province and helped produce such significant change there has now spread to a number of other locations, as well.

Based on all this, and on the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: General Petraeus used a series of charts and graphs to punctuate his point and said the Iraqi military is gradually gaining competence and taking more responsibility.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: This chart shows the security challenges in Iraq, Iraq-wide is shown by the top line on this chart. The number of ethno-sectarian deaths has come down by over 55 percent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In summary, Petraeus cautioned against a quick troop pullout from Iraq.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: ... a rapid withdrawal would result in the further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce a number of dangerous results, including a high risk of disintegration of the Iraqi security forces, rapid deterioration of local security initiatives, al-Qaida Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver, a marked increase in violence and further ethno-sectarian displacement and refugee flows, alliances of convenience by Iraqi groups with internal and external forces to gain advantages over their rivals, and exacerbation of already-challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran.

Lieutenant General Odierno and I share this assessment and believe that the best way to secure our national interests to avoid an unfavorable outcome in Iraq is to continue to focus our operations on securing the Iraqi people while targeting terrorist groups and militia extremists and, as quickly as conditions are met, transitioning security tasks to Iraqi elements.

Crocker's assessment

Ryan Crocker
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory; any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Crocker's testimony moved beyond the military situation in Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: The cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq is upwards, although the slope of that line is not steep. This process will not be quick. It will be uneven, punctuated by setbacks, as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment.

There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory; any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect.

This is a sober assessment, but it should not be a disheartening one. I have found it helpful during my time in Iraq to reflect on our own history. At many points in our early years, our survival as a nation was questionable. Our efforts to build the institutions of government were not always successful in the first instance and tough issues, such as slavery, universal suffrage, civil rights, and states' rights, were resolved only after acrimonious debate and sometimes violence.

I do believe that Iraq's leaders have the will to tackle the country's pressing problems, although it will take longer than we originally anticipated because of the environment and the gravity of the issues before them.

Prime Minister Maliki and other Iraqi leaders face enormous obstacles in their efforts to govern effectively. I believe they approach the task with a deep sense of commitment and patriotism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Crocker then gave examples of what the surge has accomplished.

RYAN CROCKER: Our population security measures have made it much harder for terrorists to conduct attacks. We have given Iraqis the time and space to reflect on what sort of country they want.

Most Iraqis genuinely accept Iraq as a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian society. It is a balance of power that is yet to be sorted out.

Enormous challenges remain. Iraqis still struggle with fundamental questions about how to share power, accept their differences, and overcome their past. Whether Iraq reaches its potential is, of course, ultimately the product of Iraqi decisions. But the involvement and support of the United States will be hugely important in shaping a positive outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The ambassador acknowledged he couldn't guarantee success in Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER: I do believe, as I have described, that it is attainable. I am certain that abandoning or drastically curtailing our efforts will bring failure, and the consequences of such a failure must be clearly understood by us all.

An Iraq that falls into chaos or civil war will mean massive human suffering well beyond what is already occurred within Iraq's borders. It could well invite the intervention of regional states, all of which see their future connected to Iraq's in some fundamental way.

Undoubtedly, Iran would be a winner in this scenario, consolidating its influence over Iraqi resources and possibly territory. The Iranian president has already announced that Iran will fill any vacuum in Iraq. In such an environment, the gains made against al-Qaida and other extremist groups could easily evaporate, and they could establish strongholds to be used as safe havens for regional and international operations.

Our current course is hard. The alternatives are far worse. Every strategy requires recalibration as time goes on. This is particularly true in an environment like Iraq where change is a daily or hourly occurrence.

Questioning Crocker, Petraeus

Gen. David Petraeus
Commander, Multi-national Force Iraq
What I recommended was a very substantial withdrawal. Five Army brigade combat teams, a Marine expeditionary unit and two Marine battalions represent a very significant force.

JUDY WOODRUFF: During all this, members had waited patiently for their allotted five minutes to question the pair.

REP. IKE SKELTON: Mr. Ambassador, why should we in Congress expect the next six months to be any different than it has been in the past?

RYAN CROCKER: Mr. Chairman, you are frustrated, the American people are frustrated, I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq on the lack of progress on legislative initiatives. Iraqis themselves are frustrated.

As I attempted to lay out in my statement, these are extremely complex legislative endeavors, and Iraqis are engaging on them with fundamental issues concerning the nature of the state as yet unresolved among them. So it is going to be difficult; it is going to take time.

That said, Mr. Chairman, I frankly do not expect that we are going to see rapid progress through these benchmarks. It is important to remind ourselves that the benchmarks are not an end to themselves; they are a means to national reconciliation. And I think it is going to take more time before the impact of improved security, which all of Iraq's leaders acknowledge has taken place -- I think it will take more time before that impact is felt in such a manner that political compromise becomes easier.

REP. IKE SKELTON: Thank you. Chairman Lantos?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Foreign Affairs Chairman Lantos asked Petraeus about his reported disagreements with the head of Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, and with the Joint Chiefs about the size of the force in Iraq and its affect on U.S. forces worldwide.

REP. TOM LANTOS: There are very impressive members of the military with outstanding credentials who favor a much more rapid but responsible withdrawal of American forces.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: What I recommended was a very substantial withdrawal. Five Army brigade combat teams, a Marine expeditionary unit and two Marine battalions represent a very significant force. They are the force, in fact, that have helped us substantially in achieving some of the recent gains that our troopers have fought so hard to achieve. I'm not sure what proposal you are referring to, Mr. Chairman, but...

REP. TOM LANTOS: Well, let me help you. Let me help you a little bit, General Petraeus, because I don't know how accurate these news reports are. But responsible media have suggested that even Admiral Fallon, among others, has favored a more rapid and more substantial withdrawal than what you are proposing.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Admiral Fallon fully supports the recommendations that I have made, as do the Joints Chiefs of Staff. In fact, I also talked to the chief of staff of the Army most recently this morning. We had discussions about the pace of the mission transition, but there has been no recommendation I am aware of that would have laid out by any of those individuals a more rapid withdrawal.

REP. ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you so much, Mr. Chairman...

Consequences of withdrawal

Ryan Crocker
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq
Iraq will still be there. And the actors in Iraq will make calculations and take actions without us, as will the neighbors, as Iran is already indicating it's quite prepared to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Under questioning from Florida Republican Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, Ambassador Crocker said members of Congress need to consider the serious consequences of withdrawal.

RYAN CROCKER: I sometimes think in this debate there is an implicit assumption that we can decide we don't want to be engaged in Iraq any longer, or at least not in the way we have been, and that, you know, the chapter comes to a close, the movie ends, and we all go on to other things.

Iraq will still be there. And the actors in Iraq will make calculations and take actions without us, as will the neighbors, as Iran is already indicating it's quite prepared to do. So I just think it's very important, as we consider what our options are and where we're going in Iraq, that we understand that this process will carry forward with or without us.

REP. IKE SKELTON: The gentlemen from New Jersey, Mr. Saxton, please?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Several other Republicans followed up on the consequences of pulling out.

REP. JIM SAXTON (R), New Jersey: The questions are these. Number one, will we leave Iraqis celebrating freedom? Or, two, will we leave the forces of evil and terror to carry out their mission in and from Iraq?

REP. CHRIS SMITH (R), New Jersey: General Petraeus, you said it would have devastating impact, consequence if we left prematurely. And you said, Ambassador Crocker, massive human suffering. I don't think that fact is fully appreciated by many of us in the Congress as to what would happen. Are we talking about a potential genocide if we leave prematurely?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: The centrifugal forces in Iraq are very, very strong. And if they are unleashed again, it is hard to tell what could happen. Certainly humanitarian -- a further humanitarian disaster, among those, is among the possible outcomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The joint House committee session continued on into the evening. Tomorrow, Crocker and Petraeus return to Capitol Hill for back-to-back hearings by the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services Committees.