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Petraeus, Crocker Continue Iraq Updates in Front of Senate Panel

September 11, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Day two of the general and the ambassador before the Congress. Judy Woodruff begins our coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Following six-and-a-half hours of testimony before two House committees yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Army General David Petraeus were back for a full day of questioning before two Senate committees, beginning with Foreign Relations.

SEN. JOE BIDEN (D), Delaware: You’re here today to give the American people a progress report on the war in Iraq and on the president’s decision in January to surge more forces into Iraq.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Responding to an opening question from Committee Chairman Joe Biden, Crocker said he was unable to give a long-term projection on U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: In terms of concrete things like force levels, as General Petraeus said, neither of us believe we can see beyond next summer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd relayed a conversation he had with one of his constituents, a soldier sent to Iraq as part of the surge.

SEN. CHRIS DODD (D), Connecticut: I asked him about the surge and how it was working. He said to me, he said, “Senator, we’ll spend a month, month-and-a-half to clean out an area.” He said, “An hour-and-a-half” — and I’m quoting him exactly — “an hour-and-a-half after we leave” — it may be an exaggeration, obviously — “after we leave, things are right back where they were before.”

He went on to say, “Look, the civilian population,” and, again, I’m quoting him, he said, “They know where the IEDs are. They know where the ammo dumps are. They won’t share that information with us here.”

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: There’s 165,000 different views on the ground. And if you go to Anbar province right now, they feel as if they’re in the loving arms of their Sunni-Arab citizens who shot at them, you know, six, eight months ago.

And it does change; there’s no question about it. And you can walk around the map, and you could say looking at it, literally, “This is where they’ll help you, this is where they won’t.” The fact is that we are getting a lot more help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel followed.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we’re doing now? For what? The president said, “Let’s buy time.” Buy time? For what? Every report I’ve seen, and I assume both of you agree with this, there’s been really very little, if any, political process that is the ultimate core issue, political reconciliation in Iraq.

RYAN CROCKER, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq: There is an enormous amount of dysfunctionality in Iraq; that is beyond question. The government in many respects is dysfunctional, and members of the government know it.

Iraq, in my judgment, almost completely unraveled in 2006 and the very beginning of 2007, as sectarian violence after February ’06 just spiraled up. Under those conditions, it is extremely difficult, it is impossible to proceed with effective governance or an effective process of national reconciliation. It’s just in the last couple of months that those levels of violence have come down in a measurable way.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL: Ambassador and General, as much as you want to put a good picture on this — and that’s partly, I understand, your job and I understand it’s your responsibility. And I don’t question you believe exactly what you’ve come before this committee to say. But I have to ask this question: Where is this going?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Senator, first of all, with respect — my responsibility, as I see it, is not to give a good picture. It’s to give an accurate picture, as forthright a picture as I can provide. And that is what I’ve tried to do.

Bringing troops home

JUDY WOODRUFF: Petraeus went on to explain his plan to begin bringing some of the troops home soon.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: If the recommendations are approved, as I mentioned, the Marine expeditionary unit, 2,000-plus, will be coming out this month. And we'll then draw down one quarter of our ground combat brigades and two additional Marine battalions.

SEN. JOE BIDEN: General, a point of clarification. Excuse me. Was that expeditionary force -- they are scheduled to come out anyway, right?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, they're scheduled to come out, but I could have easily requested an extension of them. And, in fact, we were -- I considered that. We did request an extension earlier. And that was granted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman went back to Chairman Biden's opening question, an attempt to get a long-term projection on U.S. troop involvement.

SEN. NORM COLEMAN (R), Minnesota: And we say that, yes, we can be down to half our troops in three years. We can get to five years -- we can be turning over our bases and some other paradigm. But I think we need something a little more than, say, "Give us more time to come back again in the fall."

RYAN CROCKER: The question now, the critical question for Iraqis and ultimately for ourselves, is whether, under changing conditions, the competition, before it hopefully evolves into something that is not purely ethnic-sectarian based, whether that competition increasingly translates into a political as opposed to -- a political competition as opposed to a street fight. So I think that's going to be key.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, citing this sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attack, asked Ambassador Crocker if the war in Iraq was hindering the larger war on terror.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: What's more important, though, the fighting al-Qaida, the situation in Pakistan, or the situation in Iraq?

RYAN CROCKER: Senator, in my view, fighting al-Qaida is what's important, whatever front they're on. Fighting al-Qaida in Pakistan is critically important to us.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: But, Ambassador...

RYAN CROCKER: Fighting al-Qaida in Iraq is critically important to us.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: Surely in a war you have to have priorities. Some are more important than others. I'd like to ask the general his response.

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: For what it's worth, the commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and the CIA director, when I talked to them a couple of months ago, agreed that their belief is that al-Qaida central sees al-Qaida in Iraq as their central front in their global war on terror.

SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD: With all due respect, these two critical leaders here in our government who I have great respect for, are not willing to seriously comment about how this relates to the larger global fight against terrorism, the allocation of resources. This is a classic example of myopia. This is the myopia of Iraq that is affecting our ability to look at this as the global challenge it is.

Criticizing the President

JUDY WOODRUFF: Other Democrats spent their allotted seven minutes not questioning the witnesses, but criticizing President Bush for his Iraq policy. California's Barbara Boxer.

SEN. BARBARA BOXER (D), California: Who wants to keep this course? Not the Iraqis; not the American people; not the majority of the Senate and the House. Seventy percent of the Iraqis say the surge is making matters worse.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Illinois's Barack Obama.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: Some of the frustration you hear from some of the questioners is that we have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006 is considered success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Louisiana Republican David Vitter turned the focus to the broader needs of the U.S. military.

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), Louisiana: Our time in Iraq has been marked by at least two things pretty consistently. One is, is big ups and downs. And the other, at least until now, hopefully, is that we have had fewer troops on the ground in retrospect than we needed. On page six of your testimony, you say, "Long-term U.S. ground force viability will benefit from force reductions as the surge runs its course." What exactly do you mean by that?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, again, that is taking into account, again, a very keen awareness of the strain that we've put on the Marines and the Army, in particular. We've asked an extraordinary amount of them. Were we to have continued the surge beyond really what is programmed right now would have required extraordinary measures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With just minutes to go before the Armed Services Committee took its turn, Foreign Relations wrapped up.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin gave the two witnesses only a 15-minute break between hearings before raising concerns about General Petraeus' announcement yesterday that he would recommend reducing U.S. troop strength by next July by some 30,000 to pre-surge level.

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: Telling the Iraqis that the surge will end by the middle of next year, and then we will make a decision as to whether to reduce our troop level from the basic pre-surge level of 130,000 does not change our course in Iraq. It presents an illusion of change to prevent a real change of course from occurring; it is aimed at taking the steam out of the engine of change.

Supporting troop escalation

JUDY WOODRUFF: John McCain of Arizona, the committee's ranking Republican, reiterated his strong support for the escalation. He warned colleagues against legislative moves to reduce forces. He also took aim at an Iraq partition plan championed by Foreign Relations Chairman Biden.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: What is your response to a proposal for a, quote, "soft partition" of Iraq?

RYAN CROCKER: Partition, in my view, is not a viable outcome for the situation in Iraq. Baghdad, in spite of all of the violence it has seen and all of the population displacements, remains a very mixed city, Sunnis and Shia together. Any notion that that city of over five million people can be neatly divided up or painlessly cleansed of a huge number of people is just incorrect.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Some argue that that ethnically cleansing has already taken place.

RYAN CROCKER: There clearly has been substantial displacement, mainly of Sunnis, but also of Shia. And, you know, to be candid, there is still some of that going on.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: Ambassador Crocker, what is your degree of confidence that the Maliki government will begin to do the things that we've been asking them to do for a long time?

RYAN CROCKER: My level of confidence is under control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Virginia Republican John Warner, the committee's former chairman, had tough questions for Petraeus.

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), Virginia: You wrote a letter to your troops that says as follows, "Many of us had hoped this summer would be a time of tangible political process at the national level, as well. It has not worked out as we had hoped." On what facts did you predicate that hope that you had?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, sir, I guess on the projections that were made by, in many cases, those who came before us. There were plans laid out of when certain pieces of legislation would be dealt with and so forth. And the plain and simple fact is that they were not, and I needed to level with our troops and tell them that that was the case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Warner then asked one fundamental question.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Are you able to say at this time, if we continue what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, that you feel that that is making America safer?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I believe that this is, indeed, the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq.

SEN. JOHN WARNER: Does that make America safer?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I don't know actually. I have not sat down and sorted out in my own mind. What I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the Multi-National Force Iraq.

The outcome of legislative action

JUDY WOODRUFF: Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut Independent who has repeatedly broken with Democrats over the war, asked Petraeus about those threats of legislative prescriptions for ending the war.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN (I), Connecticut: Some may attempt to take your 7,500 by the end of the year, or 30,000 by next summer, and mandate it without regard to conditions on the ground. What would you say to that?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Well, I would be uncomfortable with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lieberman also focused on the role of Iran and its agents in Iraq, specifically the Quds force, a special unit. He asked whether Petraeus sought authority to counter Iranian influence.

SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: Is it time to give you authority in pursuit of your mission in Iraq to pursue those Iranian Quds force operations in Iranian territory in order to protect America's troops in Iraq?

GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I think that, really, the Multi-National Force Iraq should just focus on Iraq and that any kinds of operations outside the borders of Iraq would rightly be overseen by the Central Command, the regional combatant command.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hawaii Democrat Daniel Akaka honed in on the failures of the Iraqi government.

SEN. DANIEL AKAKA (D), Hawaii: And why are we not holding the Iraqi government accountable for this?

RYAN CROCKER: Senator, the benchmark exercise, the failure of the Iraqi government to fully implement a number of the benchmarks has been very frustrating to us, to me personally. It's frustrating to Iraqis. It's frustrating within the Iraqi government. That doesn't mean that they should quit or that we should stop pressing them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Following two days of testimony in front of four congressional committees, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will leave and await a response from Congress.