- The Washington Times - Monday, April 7, 2008

Capitol Hill Democrats say they will question Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker this week about how the 5-year-old Iraq war has sapped U.S. military readiness, imperiled positive results from the Afghanistan conflict and alienated the United States from the rest of the world.

They also will push for a rapid pullout while posing questions about what they see as the ever-present threat of renewed fighting in Iraq, the lack of political reform by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the oil-rich country’s failure to pay for the war or reconstruction.

“We are right back to where we started before the surge,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, which hears testimony tomorrow from Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker.

They also testify tomorrow before the Senate Armed Services Committee and then Wednesday before House committees, fulfilling a mandate by the Democrat-led Congress for a follow-up to the war report they delivered in September.

Gen. Petraeus is expected to call for halting troop reductions that began in December for about six months to assess the security situation. That would keep about 140,000 troops in Iraq — 10,000 more than before the surge of troops last year that helped stifle insurgent and sectarian attacks.

Both Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker are expected to highlight political and military gains, as well as persistent challenges to the mission, including Iranian influence in the country.

Although Iran helped broker a deal to stem the fighting that has spilled from Basra to other cities in the region, U.S. officials contend that behind the scenes Iran is continuing to supply weapons and training to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia and other criminal elements connected to his militia.

The political and security instability is posing serious challenges for Gen. Petraeus, who witnessed significant progress in Iraq since the surge.

“Iran is supplying weapons, weapons training, and we know that Iranian government officials have close ties to al-Sadr,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official.

“As next-door neighbors, [Iran and the Mahdi Army] are talking to an extent,” a defense official added on the condition of anonymity. “If we do draw down troops, how will this affect things? That’s the $64,000 question. That’s something that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker will brief the Senate on. We have to see what happens. Either you take the people out, and it falls apart, or we find that the country can manage on its own.”

The political climate in Washington has shifted markedly since the war report in September, when the fighting and the number of U.S. casualties were escalating and critics openly accused Gen. Petraeus of lying about the war situation to protect President Bush.

The attacks on the general’s character culminated with the liberal group MoveOn.org buying a full-page ad in the New York Times the day of the September hearing that read: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us? Cooking the books for the White House.”

Few on Capitol Hill today would voice doubt about Gen. Petraeus’ military achievements in Iraq.

“The truth of the matter is the military did their job. The violence is down. But the Iraqis have not come together,” Mr. Biden told reporters. “Every day we stay in Iraq, the cost gets steeper and steeper and steeper.”

He acknowledged the surge — the counterinsurgency strategy devised by Gen. Petraeus that upped the force from 130,000 troops to 169,000 — reduced violence to 2005 levels, when the U.S. suffered about 800 combat fatalities.

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