By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Sept. 10, 2007 - Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq, told the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees today that the surge in Iraq is showing progress, and that he believes troop reductions to pre-surge levels could begin by summer 2008 without jeopardizing gains made. Petraeus joined U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker during the first of two days of hearings on the status of the war and political developments in Iraq.
The general told committee members that he recommended a drawdown of surge forces in Iraq to President Bush and defense leaders.
Petraeus said he recommended that a Marine expeditionary unit deployed as part of the surge not be replaced when it leaves Iraq later this month and that one of 20 U.S. combat brigades not be replaced when it redeploys in mid-December. If the general's recommendations are approved, four more brigade combat teams and two surge Marine battalions could redeploy without replacement during the first seven months of 2008.
This plan, which Petraeus emphasized must be carried out with close scrutiny to changing conditions on the ground, would bring the U.S. presence in Iraq to a pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July. These force reductions would continue beyond pre-surge levels, Petraeus said, but it's too soon to recommend how quickly they should occur, he said.
Bush is expected to announce his decision on the recommendations later this week.
Petraeus emphasized as he began his testimony today that it reflected his own independent assessment. "Although I have briefed my assessment and recommendations to my chain of command, I wrote this testimony myself," he said. "It has not been cleared by, nor shared with, anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress."
Based on a wide range of variables, Petraeus told the committees today, he's convinced the surge is working. "As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met," he said.
He noted that in recent months, in the face of tough enemies and brutal summer heat, U.S., coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved security progress.
"While there have been setbacks as well as successes and tough losses along the way, overall, our tactical commanders and I see improvements in the security environment," he said. "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," he said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have focused on improving security, especially in Baghdad and the areas around it, wresting sanctuaries from al Qaeda control and disrupting the efforts of Iranian-supported militia extremists, he said.
New practices, including the one in which units now live among the people they are securing, are paying off, Petraeus told the congressmen. He reported "substantial" progress in expanding previous gains in Anbar province, clearing Baqubah and other key Baghdad neighborhoods and pursuing al Qaeda in the Diyala River Valley and elsewhere.
Also promising, Petraeus said, is that tribal leaders are beginning to reject al Qaeda. He called this trend, which began in Anbar province and is spreading elsewhere in Iraq, among the most significant development in Iraq in the past eight months.
"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 numbers of incidents in the last two weeks at the lowest levels seen since June 2006," he said. Despite reductions in ethno-sectarian violence, Petraeus conceded it remains at "troubling levels."
The general attributed the decline in violence to "significant blows" that coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt al Qaeda in Iraq. "Though al Qaeda and its affiliates in Iraq remain dangerous, we have taken away a number of their sanctuaries and gained the initiative in many areas," he said.
He expressed confidence in Iraqi security forces as they continue to grow and shoulder more security responsibility. Iraqi elements have been "standing and fighting and sustaining tough losses, and they have taken the lead in operations in many areas," he said.
However, he noted that progress has been slower than hoped, and that, in some cases, sectarianism has appeared within the ranks.
Despite a "complex, difficult and sometimes downright frustrating" situation in Iraq, Petraeus said he believes it's possible to achieve U.S. objectives there over time. He emphasized, however, that "doing so will be neither quick nor easy."
Competition among ethnic and sectarian communities vying for power and resources remains the fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq, he told the committees. "The question is whether the competition takes place more, or less, violently," he said.
Petraeus noted that foreign and home-grown terrorists, insurgents, militia extremists and criminals all push ethno-sectarian competition toward violence. Iranian and Syrian influence fuels that violence.
Meanwhile, the general said, lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust and various forms of corruption add to Iraq's challenges.
Petraeus said his recommendations for the way ahead in Iraq will build on security improvements U.S. and Iraqi forces have fought hard to achieve in recent months. "It reflects recognition of the importance of security to the population and the imperative of transitioning responsibilities to Iraqi institutions and Iraqi forces as quickly as possible," he said.
However, he emphasized, it resists "rushing to failure," emphasizing an ongoing need to support Iraqi security forces' development and highlighting the importance of diplomacy to Iraq's long-term success. He expressed concern that moving too quickly could reverse progress made.
Petraeus emphasized the key role U.S. troops have played in successes made, calling them the best equipped and most professional force the country has ever seen. "Impressively, despite all that has been asked of them in recent years, they continue to raise their right hands and volunteer to stay in uniform," he said.
Petraeus told the joint committee he considers it a privilege to lead "America's next greatest generation" in Iraq. "Our country's men and women in uniform have done a magnificent job in the most complex and challenging environment imaginable," he said. "All Americans should be very proud of their sons and daughters serving in Iraq today."