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'Uneven' progress in Iraq

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- In an eagerly awaited assessment of the Iraq war, Gen. David Petraeus reported "uneven" progress and said yesterday that heavy deployments of U.S. troops would be required through next year because of continued violence.

Without referring to the deep political pressure for troop cuts, Petraeus insisted that "battlefield geometry" enabled him to recommend a minor reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq, with the 2,200-member 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit to be withdrawn from Anbar province this month and an Army combat brigade of about 4,000 soldiers to follow, beginning in mid-December.

The reductions would leave about 130,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq by July, the troop level before President Bush ordered a buildup last winter.

"Iraq's problems require a long-term effort," Petraeus testified at a packed congressional hearing that was disrupted periodically by anti-war protesters. "There are no easy answers or quick solutions."

Political momentum for significant reductions from the current level of 168,000 U.S. troops in Iraq has been building since public disenchantment with the war powered a Democratic takeover of the House and Senate in the November elections.

The U.S. commander in Iraq, insisting that he wrote his testimony himself, resisted that political pressure by largely endorsing troop reductions that were in the works already.

Petraeus said he would make a new assessment by March on whether the political and security situations in Iraq warrant further reductions. At this point, he said, "it would be premature" to forecast future force levels.

"Our experience in Iraq has repeatedly shown that projecting too far into the future is not just difficult, it can be misleading and even hazardous," he said.

The five combat brigades that made up the Bush "surge" will be withdrawn in sequence as planned, until the pre-buildup troop level is reached next summer, Petraeus said.

The reductions are necessary because the 28,500 troops involved in the buildup will have served their maximum 15 months in combat, U.S. officials said weeks ago. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which arrived in Anbar in June, already was scheduled to be rotated home this fall.

The one change that Petraeus has recommended is to accelerate the withdrawal of one of the five brigades. He did not identify the unit.

Bush has indicated that he is likely to accept Petraeus' recommendations, setting the stage for another year of a conflict that already has lasted 53 months - more than a year longer than the United States fought in World War II - and will raise projected costs to $567 billion.

The president is expected to address the nation this week.

U.S. casualties in the war have reached 3,772 dead and 27,767 wounded. Of those, 69 of the dead and 389 of the wounded are from Maryland, according to Defense Department data.

Overall, Petraeus told a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, the security situation in Iraq is improving gradually. He offered charts and graphs to bolster his argument that the U.S. troop buildup is having the desired effect.

Sectarian killings across the country have declined by more than 55 percent, he said, with killings in Baghdad down 80 percent since December. The number of car bombings and suicide attacks fell from 175 in March to about 90 in August, he said.

But the number was higher than that recorded in May 2006, when there were fewer than 80 such attacks.

Petraeus, chief architect of the Army's new counterinsurgency manual, has championed the idea that the war in Iraq cannot be won militarily but that U.S. forces can provide a secure environment from which political and economic progress can be made.

He has been critical of the notion that body counts provide any measure of progress in a war in which insurgents seem to be able to recruit fighters at will.

Nonetheless, Petraeus testified as one measure of progress that U.S. forces had killed or captured nearly 100 top leaders of the extremist group al-Qaida in Iraq and about 2,500 rank-and-file fighters.

"What I have tried to provide today is not a rosy picture ... [but] an accurate picture," he said.

Testifying alongside Petraeus was Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, who insisted that "a secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is attainable." But Crocker acknowledged "the enormity" of Iraq's political problems.

"I am frustrated every day in Iraq," he said. "It is going to be difficult; it is going to take time."

But the spotlight in these hearings was on Petraeus, whose testimony provoked frustration and heated exchanges, with Democrats accusing the four-star general of sugar coating a hopeless situation in Iraq and Petraeus standing his ground.

"It seems to me that we're trying to be in the middle of a dysfunctional, violent family. And the question that I first think about is, 'Can we afford to put a cop in every bad marriage, especially when the parties aren't even showing up for counseling?'" demanded Rep. Gary L. Ackerman, a New York Democrat. "I don't know how long we stay - until these people really have a better relationship, throw flowers at each other, hug each other and sing 'Kumbaya'? I don't know when that will happen. My question is: While we wait for this to happen, how much more blood should we invest? Question again is: How do we leave?"

In a particularly acrimonious exchange, Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, observed: "Seven more Americans have died while we've been talking today.

"I do not question your credibility. ... I admire your service. ... But I do question your facts. I am skeptical. More importantly, the American people are skeptical," said Wexler, his voice rising. He said war-related deaths are increasing and cited an opinion poll that indicates that 70 percent of Iraqis believe the U.S. troop buildup has failed.

"How many more men and women will be sacrificed before we admit it is time to leave?" he asked.

Calmly, but with steel in his voice, Petraeus said he stands by his data. He said a report issued last week by the Government Accountability Office, which described a more perilous security situation, was out of date and did not include figures from the most recent five weeks.

As for casualties, Petraeus said: "No one is more conscious of the loss of life than the commander of the forces. That is something I take and feel very deeply. And if I did not think this was a hugely important endeavor, and an endeavor in which we could succeed, I would not have testified as I did here today."

The security picture that Petraeus outlined makes clear that in his view, Iraq will continue to demand a significant U.S. military presence for the foreseeable future.

The reductions he outlined, involving 6,500 to 7,000 troops, would have little effect on the tactical situation in Iraq, said Thomas McNaugher, a senior military analyst at the Rand Corp., a centrist think tank. But McNaugher, a West Point graduate who fought as an Army officer in Vietnam, said the post-buildup force of 130,000 still would impose enormous stress on the ranks by requiring soldiers to rotate through combat duty with barely a year at home between deployments.

But Ronald R. Luman, director of national security analysis at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, said that long deployments, with current tours in Iraq lasting 15 months, "are going to be a way of life." In the years ahead, "these kinds of conflicts are going to happen, and there is nobody else to stabilize the situation besides the United States."

While strain on the military is evident, recruiting figures are holding steady and enough troops are re-enlisting to meet Pentagon goals.

"If you want to be a Marine, you are in this for the rest of your career," said Maj. Dan Whisnant, commander of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, which returned from Anbar province this spring. "I know in 10 or 15 years I'll still be fighting the war on terror.

"Most of the military has accepted that," he said. "But we haven't done a good job of explaining that to the American on the street: This is our way of life now."

david.wood@baltsun.com

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