WASHINGTON -- The recommendation by the top U.S. commander in Iraq to suspend troop reductions reflects a bleak assessment that Iraqi forces remain unprepared to take over the mission of securing their own nation, senior administration and military officials said yesterday.
In a second day of congressional testimony, the commander, Gen. David Petraeus, left Democrats and some Republicans again frustrated as he steadfastly declined to spell out what more would have to happen on the ground before he would endorse withdrawals to take the number of U.S. troops far below the 140,000 set to remain there after July.
In almost 20 hours of testimony over two days, Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, were much less specific than they were last September in assessing progress, prompting complaints that they presented no clear way for Congress or Americans to judge when or whether more troops might be on their way home.
In contrast to the information presented in September, the charts that Petraeus offered in his testimony did not include any showing combat troops in Iraq dipping below the 15 combat brigades to remain in Iraq when the troop buildup ends in July.
Since a significant number of support and aviation troops that accompanied the five extra brigades into Iraq will remain, nearly 140,000 U.S. military personnel - more than the 132,000 before the buildup - will be in place well into the fall and probably through Election Day.
In testimony yesterday, Crocker said his embassy was still preparing a report that would measure progress toward the 18 benchmarks that Congress set last year to help assess progress on the ground.
As the testimony concluded late yesterday, President Bush was preparing to lay out his plans for Iraq when he speaks from the Cross Hall of the White House this morning.
Senior officials said Bush would almost certainly endorse Petraeus' desire for sustained troop levels for at least 45 days after the final brigades from the troop increase leave. They said Petraeus' assessment that Iraqi forces remained unprepared to take over the security mission was shared by the White House and the Pentagon.
But Bush is also expected to acknowledge the strain on the military by announcing that the current 15-month deployments to Iraq will be reduced to 12 months by August.
The president is not expected to detail the specific conditions on the ground in Iraq that would allow him to order large numbers of troops home before he leaves.
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, voiced his party's criticism of the president's strategy yesterday, saying in a statement that "based on everything we have heard, we can reach only one conclusion: With 160,000 courageous American troops serving in Iraq, President Bush has an exit strategy for just one man - himself - on Jan. 20, 2009."
A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the administration had abandoned the benchmarks as a strict standard of progress because establishing a secure Iraq would also depend on factors other than political and military progress. The official said those factors included the roles played by Iraqi tribes and regional groups in confronting militant Sunni groups like al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, as well as efforts challenging the forces of the radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Over two days of testimony, Petraeus was repeatedly asked to explain the conditions that would allow further withdrawals, but he answered that they were not based on some easily defined measurements.
Asked for elaboration, the senior administration official said, "It's a very hard concept to explain publicly because it doesn't feature a sort of setting of the dial. It features what we call a running assessment."
The transition to Iraqi control - the chart Petraeus showed in September - remained the core strategy, officials said, and leads toward the goal of U.S. forces standing back to a position of "strategic overwatch."
"The challenge is that even in overwatch you can have security issues," the official said.
Col. Steven A. Boylan, who is Petraeus' spokesman, said no dates for future troop reductions past July were presented on the charts to Congress because the decision could be made only after assessing conditions after the fifth troop-increase brigade left.
"A lot of people are speculating," Boylan said, but no decisions can or will be made "until the assessment of the conditions" is made, as part of a process that would begin 45 days after the troop increase ends.
Petraeus said Iraqi security forces today were "a very, very mixed bag across the board." During the recent Basra mission, Iraqis showed they could move around the country in ways they could not even six months ago. But the combat operation proved that many units were unprepared, he said. The speed of the future force reductions has divided the military, though officials said that all had signed off on the approach Bush will endorse today.