Crocker, Petraeus warn against cuts

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BAGHDAD — The top U.S. general and diplomat in Iraq warned yesterday against cutting short the American troop buildup and suggested they would urge Congress in September to give President Bush’s strategy more time.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, in separate Associated Press interviews at their offices in the U.S. Embassy on the banks of the Tigris River, were careful not to define a time frame for continuing the counterinsurgency strategy — and the higher U.S. troop levels — that began six months ago.

Still, Gen. Petraeus‘ comments signaled that he would like to see a substantial U.S. combat force remain on its current course well into next year and perhaps beyond. He said that a drawdown from today’s level of 160,000 U.S. troops is coming but he would not say when.

Gen. Petraeus said he and his top deputy, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, are working on how to carry out a reduction in the extra troops Mr. Bush ordered to Baghdad and to Anbar province. He said the drawdown would be done “over time, without undermining what we’ve fought to achieve.”

“There is a lot more that we certainly will try to do,” Gen. Petraeus said.

With the American public’s patience wearing thin, many in Congress are pressing for a troop reduction soon. Mr. Bush has resisted, saying he is waiting to receive the advice of Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker in September.

Pressed repeatedly on when he thought troop levels could be reduced and other U.S. involvement scaled back, Mr. Crocker said: “It’s going to take longer than September.”

U.S. military officers have said in recent interviews that although troop levels should be determined as conditions evolve, they see little reason to remove the full 30,000 U.S. troop buildup before next summer. Some foresee beginning some reductions by summer or earlier.

Gen. Petraeus said he would make his case in September, when he and Mr. Crocker are due to report to Congress on military and political progress and on their recommendations.

He said the troop buildup has clearly established “tactical momentum,” meaning its more aggressive efforts to secure volatile neighborhoods in Baghdad and areas around the capital are succeeding. The bigger issue is whether those gains will lead to a stability that can be sustained.

“The surge enables us to turn the tide just a bit in key places,” the four-star general said in an hourlong interview.

The U.S. military said five American troops had died in fighting this week: four northeast of the capital and one in Baghdad.

Yesterday, a bomb in a parked car exploded near a market in a predominantly Shi’ite area of Baghdad, killing at least 25 persons and wounding 74, police said.

Smoke billowed into the sky and fires burned on the ground after the thunderous explosion, which struck as the market in Karradah was packed with shoppers. The blast also burned nine cars and set a three-story building on fire, said police and hospital officials who gave the casualty toll.

It was the deadliest in a series of daily attacks nationwide that left at least 50 persons dead.

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