WASHINGTON -- President Bush's nominee to be the new commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, told Congress yesterday that the situation in Iraq is dire and poses "tough days" ahead, but pleaded for time to begin executing a new strategy.
Petraeus, who holds a doctorate from Princeton University and developed the Army's counterinsurgency warfare manual, is expected to win Senate approval later this week, despite his role as an architect of the unpopular new Bush strategy. But as Petraeus fielded questions from senators of both parties about the deepening dilemma facing U.S. forces, he was forthcoming and occasionally blunt in his assessment of American odds in the war-torn country.
"The situation in Iraq is dire. The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard," he said. "But hard is not hopeless."
If confirmed as a replacement for Army Gen. George W. Casey, Petraeus would represent the first step in a sweeping military restructuring ordered by Bush as part of his new strategy to send in 21,500 new U.S. troops. Navy Adm. William J. Fallon faces a hearing next Tuesday to succeed retiring Gen. John P. Abizaid as commander of U.S. forces throughout the Middle East.
However, Casey faces a potentially difficult challenge to his nomination as the next Army chief of staff, his new job. Blamed by some for American problems in Iraq, Casey will confront opposition at his Feb. 1 confirmation hearing from Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who supports the troop buildup, among others.
Throughout his hearing, Petraeus appeared assured and confident yesterday, answering questions crisply and directly. However, Petraeus ran afoul of senators over the debate in Congress on a resolution denouncing the new Bush strategy.
In response to a question by McCain, Petraeus said passage of a resolution would not have a "beneficial effect" on morale. Asked by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Connecticut Independent, if the resolution would show the enemy that the American people are divided, Petraeus said that yes, it would.
After other senators - both Republicans and Democrats - objected to those answers, Petraeus backed away. When Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, tried to get him to take another swipe at the resolution, Petraeus became more diplomatic.
"Learning that mine fields are best avoided and gone around rather than walked through on some occasions, I'd like to leave that one there, senator," Petraeus said.
Petraeus has served two tours of duty in Iraq, first as commander of the 101st Airborne Division and then as the general overseeing the training of Iraqi forces. For the last 15 months, he has been the commanding general at Fort Leavenworth, supervising much of the Army's education system and developing the military's war-fighting doctrine, including the new counterinsurgency manual.
At Fort Leavenworth and in the pages of the Army's academic journal, Petraeus has argued that the most important goal in a counterinsurgency fight is making the population feel safe. And on Capitol Hill yesterday, Petraeus said that would be the cornerstone of the new strategy.
He said the sectarian violence in Baghdad amounted to "soft ethnic cleansing" and described the risks taken by ordinary Iraqi citizens every day as "incalculable." The erosion of security, he argued, had become the primary challenge for the U.S.
So rather than focusing on training the Iraqis, the new priority would be improving security in Baghdad. The new strategy, he argued, was as important as the additional forces.
Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.