Petraeus looks to Iraq drawdowns

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Army Gen. David H. Petraeus yesterday said he expects in September to recommend further troop drawdowns from Iraq, a markedly more confident outlook than the “wait-and-see” approach he proposed to Congress last month.

“I don’t want to imply that that means a [brigade combat team] or major combat formation, although it could,” the U.S. commander in Iraq told a Senate panel.

“But I do believe that there will be certain assets that, as we are already looking at the picture right now, we’ll be able to recommend can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall.”

Gen. Petraeus‘ fall assessment will come as U.S. voters are choosing a president. Presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain has said he will keep troops on the ground based on the recommendation to military commanders. Both Democrats, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, are calling for immediate troop withdrawals.

Gen. Petraeus, who testified at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to command the Middle East theater, also said he expects the long-anticipated Iraqi provincial election scheduled for November to be delayed a month.

“But, again, there’s every intention to have elections in the fall,” he said. “And that is our expectation still.”

Sen. Carl Levin, the committee chairman and a staunch war critic, said the delay of Iraqi elections “is not good news … but thank you for your answer.”

In North Carolina, President Bush yesterday welcomed home troops from the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg and told them that he will continue to leave troop decisions in the hands of his military commanders.

“General Petraeus and our commanders will continue to analyze the situation on the ground and report back to me with their recommendations for future troop levels,” Mr. Bush said. “But my message to our commanders is this: You will have all the troops, you will have all the resources you need to win in Iraq.”

He said the 82nd Airborne was part of the success of his troop surge plan, saying it has brought down the level of civilian deaths, sectarian killings and attacks on U.S. forces.

The president also took the chance to praise Gen. Petraeus, a former commander in the division, and called for the Senate to confirm his nomination to lead the United States Central Command, which oversees security in 25 countries stretching from the Horn of Africa through the Middle East and into Central Asia.

Gen. Petraeus‘ testimony yesterday contrasted with the briefing that he gave last month in which he said further troop drawdowns would follow a lengthy assessment period. At the time, he said he couldn’t make a recommendation until after a 45-day period after the troop withdrawal scheduled to end in July followed by an indefinite period of assessment.

Mr. Levin, Michigan Democrat, put his war stance aside to endorse promotions of Gen. Petraeus to lead the United States Central Command and Army Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who also testified, to take over command in Iraq.

“Regardless of one’s view of the wisdom of the policy that took us to Iraq in the first place and has kept us there over five years, we owe General Petraeus and General Odierno a debt of gratitude for the commitment, determination and strength that they’ve brought to their areas of responsibility,” he said.

“And regardless how long the administration may choose to remain engaged in the strife in that country, our troops are better off for the leadership that these two distinguished soldiers provide.”

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