Further troop withdrawal seen likely

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, gave Congress a markedly more upbeat assessment of the war yesterday than he did just six weeks ago, saying violence has hit a four-year low and further troop reductions are likely in the fall.

Qualifying his assessment, Petraeus said the additional troop withdrawals may be small, potentially less than a full 3,500-soldier combat brigade. He also said that political goals continue to lag, noting that Iraqi provincial elections scheduled for October will be postponed by at least a month.

But Petraeus was noticeably more optimistic in testimony yesterday than he was during a high-profile appearance on Capitol Hill last month. Then, an Iraqi offensive in the southern city of Basra was faltering, with government troops stymied by Shiite militias and violence breaking out in Shiite neighborhoods nationwide.

This time, Petraeus, painted a picture of Iraqi troops finally taking the lead against extremist groups and militias on multiple battlefields, from the south in Basra to the northern city of Mosul and Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood in between.

"The operation in Basra did have a shaky start, but it has since seen enormous progress that has produced very positive tactical and strategic results," Petraeus said. "This has been all important, because there has been a degree of support for Prime Minister al-Maliki in the subsequent period that is unparalleled during the time that . . . I have been in Iraq."

Petraeus was testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is considering his nomination to become head of all U.S. forces in the Middle East.

At the same hearing, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, nominated to become the top Iraq commander, said he did not think additional U.S. troops would be needed for the Iraqi provincial elections this fall.

President Bush, meanwhile, speaking to thousands of troops at Fort Bragg, N.C., said yesterday that progress in Iraq was "undeniable" and that the United States was "on our way to victory."

Petraeus' decision to recommend further U.S. troop reductions this fall could have significant political implications at home. The move likely would occur in September, in the midst of a heated presidential campaign in which Republican John McCain has staked his candidacy on his advocacy of the 30,000-troop buildup in Iraq last year.

Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times

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