By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 11, 2007 - The top U.S. military commander and diplomat in Iraq entered their third round of congressional testimony this afternoon reiterating their belief that although the mission in Iraq is challenging, it's making progress the United States can't afford to let slip. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker reported to the Senate Armed Services Committee the signs of progress they've seen in Iraq, as well as the frustrations.
Much of the testimony mirrored discussions aired during marathon sessions over the past two days. Petraeus and Crocker testified for about six hours yesterday before the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, then returned to Capitol Hill this morning for a four-and-a-half-hour Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing.
Petraeus reiterated this afternoon that the U.S. troop surge has shown sufficient progress for him to recommend a plan to begin drawing down the 30,000 surge troops starting next month. That plan, if President Bush approves it, would bring the U.S. force in Iraq to pre-surge levels of about 130,000 by mid-July.
It would be premature to predict the pace of further U.S. troop cuts now, the general said. Doing so would be "misleading and even hazardous," he said.
March will be a better time to get "a better feel for the security situation, the improvements in the capabilities of our Iraqi counterparts and the enemy situation," he told committee members.
Pressed by the senators to predict when a larger-scale drawdown can take place, Petraeus said making such a call now would "be doing a disservice to our soldiers." He told the senators he's "as frustrated with the situation as anybody else," and wants to see the U.S. force reduced "as quickly as we can."
Petraeus and Crocker said they're heartened by a variety of factors in Iraq: less violence, fewer civilian deaths and the trend in which sheiks and tribal leaders have started to cooperate with Iraqi security forces and coalition troops to oust al Qaeda and other extremists from their regions.
The general noted that Iraqi security forces are shouldering more security responsibility. He and Crocker expressed optimism that former Sunni insurgents have been accepted into the Iraqi police and security forces in some of the provinces, and that some former members of Saddam Hussein's army are being offered jobs in the security forces.
These efforts demonstrate that "the seeds of reconciliation are being planted," Crocker told the senators.
Petraeus acknowledged shortcomings within Iraq's security forces. He conceded that Iraq's national police lag far behind their army counterparts and that sectarian rifts have appeared within that force's ranks.
And despite progress made, it's too soon for U.S. troops to hand over to its current mission to Iraqi security forces so it can focus on counter terrorism efforts, he said.
Petraeus also shared Crocker's frustration that national political efforts are moving slower than hoped and slower than security progress.
Petraeus told the senators that he and Crocker agree that U.S. objectives in Iraq are achievable but that they will take patience. "I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort," he said. "There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And although we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time."
Withdrawing U.S. troops prematurely "would likely have devastating consequences," he said.
Petraeus emphasized during the testimony that he was painting a true picture of conditions on the ground, independent of Pentagon, White House or congressional influence.
"My responsibility, as I see it, is not to give a good picture," he said in response to a senator's question. "It is to give an accurate picture."