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Petraeus to brief Congress on Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- Ever since last spring, President Bush has publicly staked the future of his strategy in Iraq on a series of briefings that an Army general will deliver to Congress today and tomorrow - the long-awaited report by Gen. David Petraeus on the state of the war.

"Why don't you wait and see what [Petraeus] says?" Bush pleaded with Congress in May. "Fund the troops, and let him come back and report to the American people."

Bush's reasoning, aides said, was simple: An assessment from Petraeus was likely to enjoy more credibility with Congress and the public than anything the president could say. Aides knew Petraeus was likely to support Bush's strategy in Iraq, because the general was one of the architects of the yearlong buildup of troops to try to stabilize Baghdad and other areas.

But Petraeus' report may not have as much impact as the White House hoped, because his message has been widely anticipated - and even previewed by Petraeus himself.

"The surge will run its course," Petraeus told ABC News last week, forecasting a gradual drawdown of some of the estimated 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq. "There are limits to what our military can provide, so my recommendations have to be informed ... by the strain we have put on our military services."

Officials have said they expect Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker to make three major points: The surge is beginning to succeed, but it is too soon to withdraw significant numbers of troops; the Baghdad government has failed to meet Bush administration political goals, but there are signs of progress at the local level; and, finally, the consequences of a hasty withdrawal would be catastrophic.

Administration officials expect Petraeus to report that the initial phase of the buildup has improved security in Baghdad, in Anbar province to the west and Diyala province to the northeast. He is likely to say that U.S. forces can reduce their presence in Anbar and Diyala, but not yet in Baghdad.

Petraeus will recommend that decisions on reducing the main body of American troops in Iraq be put off for six months, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The general has advised Bush that troop cuts could begin in mid-December, with the withdrawal of a combat brigade, about 4,000 troops. By mid-July, the U.S. force in Iraq could be down to 15 combat brigades, the level before Bush's troop buildup.

The precise timing of such reductions, which would leave about 130,000 troops in Iraq, would depend on conditions in the country. But the general has also said that it is too soon to present recommendations on reducing U.S. forces below that level and has suggested that he wait until March to outline proposals.

Petraeus "wants to keep as much force on the ground as we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can," said a Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The effect of Petraeus' recommendations would be to begin troop reductions somewhat earlier than many experts had expected, while deferring deliberations on more fundamental troop issues. In effect, the much-awaited debate this month in Congress over Iraq would become a prelude for another set of potentially difficult deliberations next year.

A U.S. military official in Baghdad said that while the forces will be rearranged, perhaps moving them from more peaceful provinces to Baghdad or another hot spot, he does not expect a major drawdown until forces involved in the buildup begin to leave in March or April.

In his remarks to Congress, Petraeus is expected to emphasize the problems that large troop withdrawals would create.

A hasty withdrawal could produce "a failed state in the middle of Iran and Syria and Saudi Arabia, where you'd have huge problems getting oil to the world market, where you'd potentially have a humanitarian disaster," Army Col. Michael J. Meese, an adviser to Petraeus, told the Council on Foreign Relations last week.

Administration officials expect Petraeus to recommend that U.S. troops can be removed from areas where the Iraqi force has strong leadership or long-standing partnerships with U.S. forces that allow it to undertake operations independently. But military officers close to Petraeus believe he will avoid making precise predictions of when the Iraqi army will be able to take over, arguing that in the past, such predictions have always failed to materialize and have eroded the credibility of U.S. commanders in Iraq.

Bush administration officials have pointed to reductions in attacks and killings, but congressional critics regard the figures as unreliable. Petraeus is expected to point to statistics as indications of improvements, but will be careful not to overstate their importance, Meese said.

On the political front, Petraeus is expected to talk about the gains made by U.S. forces in working with formerly anti-American insurgents in Sunni Arab communities of Anbar province.

But officials also acknowledge that political progress has been piecemeal and slow. Petraeus and Crocker are expected to de-emphasize the likelihood of a national reconciliation and instead talk about the importance of smaller steps of local "accommodation" first, one official said.

Administration officials acknowledge that the military is not in agreement about the way forward, and not all senior military advisers agree with Petraeus.

A senior official said the disagreement among military officials could become public after Petraeus' appearance, or perhaps after expected comments from Bush later this week.

"I suspect that some of the dissenting voices will talk about the fact that they might not be totally in agreement with General Petraeus," the official said. "There will be some folks who will say, 'I would do things differently if I were in charge of Iraq.' But they are not in charge."

Doyle McManus and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times contributed to this article.

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