Gen. David Petraeus told Congress on Monday he envisions the withdrawal of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops by next summer, beginning with a Marine contingent later this month.
In long-awaited testimony, the commanding general of the war said last winter’s buildup in U.S. troops had met its military objectives “in large measure.”
As a result, he told a congressional hearing and a nationwide television audience, “I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level … by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve.”
Testifying in a military uniform bearing four general’s stars and a chestful of medals, Petraeus said he had already provided his views to the military chain of command.
Rebutting charges that he was merely doing the White House’s bidding, he said firmly: “I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress.”
His testimony came at a politically pivotal moment in the war, with the Democratic-controlled Congress pressing for a troop withdrawal deadline and the Bush administration hoping to prevent wholesale Republican defections on the issue.
Petraeus said that a unit of about 2,000 Marines will depart Iraq later this month, beginning a drawdown that would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers.
After that, another four brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008, he said. That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq, roughly the number stationed there last winter when President Bush decided to dispatch additional forces.
He said he believes withdrawals could continue even after the 30,000 extra troops go home, but he added that it would be premature to make any further recommendations.
Initial reaction from Democrats was sour.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was a “token withdrawal,” and Petraeus rebutted him swiftly.
“A very substantial withdrawal,” he countered.
Petraeus didn’t say so, but Ambassador Ryan Crocker strongly suggested that the administration’s troop buildup had prevented a debacle.
Testifying alongside the general, Crocker said 2006 was a “bad year for Iraq. The country came close to unraveling politically, economically and in security terms. 2007 has brought improvement.”
The extent of any improvement has been a matter of debate. The Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency, recently reported that Iraq has partially achieved only four of 18 political and military goals.
While Petraeus focused his remarks mostly on military matters, he also noted the failure thus far of the Iraqi government to take the actions needed to stabilize the country for the long term.
“Lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust, and various forms of corruption add to Iraq’s challenges,” he said.
Using 13 pages of colorful charts, Petraeus said “the level of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June of 2006.”
Petraeus also said the Iraqi military is slowly gaining competence and gradually “taking on more responsibility for their security.”
He cited Anbar province as an example of Iraqis turning against terrorists, adding, “We are seeing similar actions in other locations as well.”
Bush and his political allies have worked forcefully in recent weeks to shore up Republican support. One organization with ties to the administration has spent millions on television advertisements, and Bush traveled to Anbar province last week to highlight improved security in the vast western stretches of Iraq.
Bush also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the hours before Petraeus spoke, and is expected to deliver a nationwide address on the war in the next few days.
Despite the administration’s efforts, fresh polls reflected significant public opposition to the war.
An AP-Ipsos survey found that only 36 percent of those questioned believe the troop increase has helped stabilize Iraq. That was up only marginally from 32 percent in February, as the buildup was beginning.
A USA Today-Gallup poll taken in the past few days found that 60 percent of those surveyed favor setting a timetable for removing troops. Only 35 percent favor keeping the troops in Iraq until the situation improves.
Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were the only witnesses at a nationally televised hearing punctuated by numerous protests by anti-war demonstrators. Cindy Sheehan, a prominent critic of the war, was among those hustled from the room by police.
Over and over, Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat presiding, ordered police to remove the demonstrators. “This is intolerable,” he said at one point.
Skelton and fellow lawmakers spoke first, as is customary in Congress, and Petraeus listened to more than 45 minutes of political rhetoric. His testimony was delayed another 10 minutes by a malfunctioning microphone, but when he began to speak, the lawmakers arrayed on the dais across from him listened intently.
Crocker followed Petraeus to the microphone, and employed some of the most stark rhetoric of the hearing.
Saying al-Qaida had “overplayed its hand” in Anbar province, he said, “Anbaris began to reject its excesses, be they beheading school children or cutting off people’s fingers for smoking.”
Skelton, a moderate midwesterner and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, welcomed Petraeus to the hearing with wistful words of praise.
Petraeus is “almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he’s the right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short,” he said.
The war is in its fifth year and has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 U.S. troops.
Petraeus’ greeting elsewhere wasn’t nearly as warm as Skelton’s praise.
“Cooking the books for the White House,” charged the newspaper advertisement by MoveOn.Org — an allegation that Republicans swiftly challenged Democrats to disavow.
Nearly two dozen senators, all Republicans except for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, called for Democrats to denounce the advertisement.
Democrats have been critical of Petraeus, but not nearly as scathing — or as personal — as the MoveOn advertisement.
“General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” it asked, a wordplay on his name.