- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus yesterday recommended reducing U.S. force levels in Iraq by about 30,000 troops by next summer, starting by bringing home at least 3,500 by Christmas.

Photo Gallery:General Petraeus on Capitol Hill

Gen. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said that the troop surge ordered by President Bush has produced security gains and that al Qaeda is losing ground as tribal leaders throughout the country turn against the terrorists.

“A premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences,” the general told a House panel as he and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker delivered a highly anticipated assessment of the war.

“There are no easy answers or quick solutions,” said Gen. Petraeus, who warned that Iran and Syria are intent on destabilizing Iraq and that violence could spill across Iraq’s borders absent a U.S. deterrent.

Mr. Crocker, focusing on the political and economic progress of Iraq, said the Iraqi people are slowly coalescing as a nation despite the Iraqi government’s failure to adopt laws that would aid national reconciliation.

“The seeds of reconciliation are being planted,” he said. “This process will not be quick. It will be uneven, punctuated by setbacks as well as achievements, and it will require substantial U.S. resolve and commitment. … This is a sober assessment, but it should not be a disheartening one.”

Mr. Crocker said he often reflects on American history for perspective on the halting pace of Iraq’s political progress. “At many points in our early years, our survival as a nation was questionable,” he said.

The ambassador said Iraq’s economy is slowly emerging as security improves, citing a the International Monetary Fund’s estimates that economic growth will exceed 6 percent for 2007 and that nearly one-third of the nation’s oil revenue is being used for capital investments beneficial to all ethnic groups.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the general’s troop-withdrawal proposal is “simply unacceptable” and four years too late.

“The president’s strategy in Iraq has failed,” she said. “It is time to change the mission of our troops to one that will promote regional stability and combat terrorism so that the numbers of our brave men and women in uniform in Iraq can be reduced on a much more aggressive timetable than the one outlined today by General Petraeus.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the general’s plan would continue “the president’s flawed escalation policy” and damage the United States’ national interests.

“The longer we keep over 130,000 troops in Iraq, the less incentive Iraqis have to engage in the needed political reconciliation and the longer we avoid dealing with several pressing threats to our national security,” the Nevada Democrat said, noting that terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden remains at large, the Taliban are re-emerging in Afghanistan and Iran is pursuing nuclear-weapons technology.

The complete rollback of the 30,000 troop surge, however, further complicates plans by the Democrat-led Congress to legislate a pullout. The size of the recommended troop withdrawal is large enough to satisfy the more conservative members of the Democratic Caucus.

It also pre-empts a proposal for a gradual troop withdrawal and forces Democratic leaders to adopt a more extreme posture to challenge Mr. Bush’s war policy.

The general’s recommendations should prompt some Democrats to “pause and rethink their position,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, which heard the testimony yesterday in a joint hearing with the Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Petraeus made it perfectly clear that a complete withdrawal is not possible if we are to ensure Iraq’s safety from foreign influence, like that of Iran,” Mr. Hunter said.

The more than six hours of testimony, kicking off two days of hearings in advance of Mr. Bush’s congressionally mandated war report due tomorrow, provided few moments of drama despite months of anticipation.

Gen. Petraeus calmly answered questions, and Democrats, who doubted the general’s independence in the preceding days, listened.

In one of the few exchanges, the general quickly rebutted the characterization of his recommended withdrawal as “token.”

“A very substantial withdrawal,” he quickly replied to the statement by Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Gen. Petraeus made it clear at the hearing’s start that his recommendations were neither vetted by the White House nor the Pentagon, and that they were already sent up the chain of command.

Gen. Petraeus’ plan to keep U.S. forces in Iraq at the pre-surge level of about 130,000 troops must be approved by the White House. He said further reductions are possible after July, but he didn’t want to speculate further.

Mr. Bush is expected to make a nationwide speech on the war in the next few days.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said Mr. Bush will place a lot of weight on his general’s recommendations and “liked what he heard last week” when he was briefed on Gen. Petraeus’ plans.

Democrats say the Iraq government has failed to take control of that country despite the respite from violence or “breathing room” the extra troops were supposed to provide. A pullout, they say, would extract U.S. forces from a civil war and encourage Iraqis to take charge.

Several protesters, including antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan, were arrested for yelling out during the hearing.

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