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Patraeus hints at troop cuts

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September 5, 2007

Iraq war commander General David Petraeus hinted at US troop cuts there by March, setting the stage for his pivotal testimony next week before Congress on President George W. Bush’s surge strategy.

“There are limits to what our military can provide, so, my recommendations have to be informed by — not driven by — but they have to be informed by the strain we have put on our military services,” Petraeus told ABC News Tuesday.

Asked if the current 162,000-strong US presence in Iraq could be drawn down by March 2008, the general said in an interview in Baghdad: “your calculations are about right.”

But Petraeus said that while troops could be scaled back over the “long-term,” he foresaw a “traditional counter-insurgency” that could last a decade.

The intervention by Petraeus came as political wrangling over the war intestified, after lawmakers returned from a summer break, for a crucial 10-day span packed with reports and testimony on the state of the war.

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s administration had failed to meet 11 out of 18 political and security benchmarks, despite the surge designed to offer space for it to act.

Democrats seized upon the report as ammunition for demands to start bringing more than 160,000 soldiers home from a war which has killed more than 3,700 of their comrades and tens of thousands of civilians.

But the White House questioned the findings of the GAO report, and said Petraeus’s testimony next week would give a more accurate picture.

The GAO report, published a day after Bush flew into Iraq on a surprise visit to proclaim the surge’s military successes, said the Iraqi government “met three, partially met four and did not meet 11 of its 18 benchmarks”

“Overall, key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend 10 billion dollars in reconstruction funds,” the report said.

The benchmarks were established in law by the US Congress, based on targets for progress set earlier this year by the Iraqi government itself.

GAO chief, Comptroller General David Walker was asked at a Senate Foreign Relations committee to assess the US-backed Iraqi government.

“I think you have to say it is dysfunctional,” Walker said.

Democrats demanding troop withdrawals from what they term a “civil war” in Iraq, said the report proved Bush’s strategy to swamp the battlefield with around 28,500 more troops had failed.

“Only three of these 18 benchmarks have actually been met,” Democratic Senator John Kerry said at the committee hearing.

“No matter what spin we may hear in the coming days, this independent assessment is a failing grade for a policy that simply isn’t working.”

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid said the report “confirms that the president’s Iraq strategy is simply not working.”

“It is long past time for a new strategy.”

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, an administration critic, asked “how many more American deaths and casualties and billions and billions of dollars … are we going to continue to invest, and for what?”

Bush is legally bound to deliver a report to Congress by the end of next week on the war, framed by assessments from US security agencies, Petraeus and the US ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.

The political tumult over the war is likely to be cranked up another notch on Thursday when former top US commander in Europe General James Jones testifies to lawmakers on the status of the Iraqi armed forces.

The various reports will be crucial to determining the political ground as Democrats stage another attempt to wrest control of war policy from Bush, who has rejected all troop withdrawal timelines.

Republicans looked to be on the verge of a revolt before Congress’s summer break, but the various favorable assessments of military progress in Iraq appear to have at least limited further defections from Bush.