Mixed reaction to general’s cautious optimism

It was the most eagerly anticipated testimony on Capitol Hill this year. Yet, when General David Petraeus started delivering his progress report on Iraq on Monday, a faulty microphone meant almost nobody in the room could hear him.

The problem was eventually fixed, allowing the US commander in Iraq to set out his cautiously optimistic assessment of an improving security environment that would allow at least 30,000 US troops to be brought home by next summer.

But, after several days of leaks and well-informed speculation, the political reaction to his testimony was largely settled before he spoke.

Tom Lantos, Democratic chairman of the House foreign relations committee, did not wait to hear from Gen Petraeus before declaring in his opening statement that, “strategically, the surge has failed”.

“We cannot take any of this administration’s assertions about Iraq seriously any more,” he said. “No amounts of charts and statistics will increase its credibility.”

Republicans rushed to praise the testimony. John Boehner, House Republican leader, said Gen Petraeus had “underscored the stark difference between his thoughtful, responsible strategy and the irresponsible aims of some to precipitously withdraw our troops and leave Iraq in chaos.”

But while the rhetorical war over Iraq rages unabated on Capitol Hill, there are signs that differences between the parties could be narrowing. The Democratic leadership, worried about being portrayed as soft on defence, has edged away from threats to force an immediate end to the war. Some Democrats are seeking compromise with moderate Republicans on legislation that mandates gradual withdrawal.

“The Democrats are still saying, ‘pull the troops out’. But, with a few exceptions, they are starting to talk in terms of broad timetables rather than specific deadlines,” explains a former senior US government official. “I think there is an opportunity for the country to come together over Iraq. And I wouldn’t have said that was possible two months ago.”

This week’s testimony by Gen Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, is expected to form the basis of a White House progress report on Iraq that George W. Bush must deliver Congress before the weekend. The president promised over the weekend to set out a "vision" for future US involvement in Iraq that the American people and both political parties could support.

The White House has become increasingly confident in its argument that the surge is working, citing increased security in Anbar province - once among the most violent parts of Iraq - as its main evidence. "It is clear that everybody now agrees that there has been significant progress on the surge," said Tony Snow, White House press secretary, before Monday’s testimony.

In making the case to continue a strong presence in Iraq, Gen Petraeus pointed to a decrease in the number of security incidents during eight of the past 12 weeks, with the last two weeks seeing the lowest level of attacks since June 2006.

Gen Petraeus said the number of car bomb and suicide attacks had fallen from 175 in March to 90 in August. He also argued that the US had made “substantial progress” against Al-Qaeda in Iraq, saying the group while not defeated was “off balance”.

Despite the shortages in Iraqi security forces, many units “now operate with minimal coalition assistance”, he said. Last week, a panel of retired senior military and police officers concluded that while the Iraqi security forces were making progress, they would not be able to operate independently over the next 18 months.

Gen Petraeus told lawmakers that the US needed to continue its presence to ensure the Iraqi government could work towards reconciliation. He cited a previously undisclosed report by the Defence Intelligence Agency that warned against a rapid withdrawal from Iraq, saying it would “further release of the strong centrifugal forces in Iraq and produce number of dangerous results”.

In recent weeks, Democrats have conceded that the surge has helped improve security in Iraq. Most agree however with the conclusion of several recent reports that the Iraqi government has failed to capitalise on the security gains to achieve political reform and reconciliation.

Mr Crocker on Monday told lawmakers it was important to understand that Iraq was “experiencing a revolution, not just regime change”. “It is only by understanding this that we can appreciate what is happening in Iraq, what Iraqis have achieved, as well as maintain a sense of realism about the challenges that remain,” he said.

He argued that while the Iraqi government had not made progress in certain areas, such as passing a national hydrocarbon law to outline how to share oil revenues, central government leaders were realising the need for reconciliation.

Mr Crocker warned that hasty US withdrawal from Iraq would result in “massive” human suffering, provide a safe haven for international terrorists and allow Iran to consolidate its influence over the country. “Our current course is hard. The alternatives are far worse,” he said.

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