In September 2004 General David Petraeus – then a senior US commander in Iraq – wrote in the Washington Post that he was optimistic American forces were beginning to turn the corner in what was then an 18-month-old war.
“I see tangible progress,” Gen Petraeus wrote. “Iraqi security elements are being rebuilt from the ground up. The institutions that oversee them are being re-established from the top down. And Iraqi leaders are stepping forward.”
Three years and many disastrous episodes later, Gen Petraeus – now overall commander of US troops in Iraq – will on Monday present Congress with his much-awaited progress report on the “new way forward in Iraq” that President George W. Bush unveiled in January.
Bush administration officials are urging the Democratic-controlled Congress to take the general’s testimony on Monday and that of Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Iraq, at “face value”.
Mr Bush, who on Sunday returned a day early from the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Sydney to prepare for Monday’s hearing, urged Capitol Hill to “to sit back and listen to these two well-respected professionals before jumping to any conclusions”.
Mr Bush added that his resolve to succeed in Iraq was “as strong as it’s ever been”. But a growing number of Democratic lawmakers are casting pre-emptive doubts on the independence of Gen Petraeus’s judgment.
On Monday, MoveOn.Org – the Democratic anti-war group – has taken out a full page advertisement in the New York Times which says: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?”
Less abrasively, Democratic senators are citing the general’s 2004 Washington Post piece that appeared just weeks before the presidential election and was written at a stage when fewer than 1,000 US troops had died in Iraq compared to almost 3,800 today.
They also point to an ABC poll this weekend which says 53 per cent of Americans believe Gen Petraeus will try to portray the situation in Iraq as better than it really is.
Just over 60 per cent of the public continue to label the war a mistake – a number unchanged from before the surge.
Whether Mr Bush’s 30,000-troop increase, which has taken the US military presence in Iraq to a peak of around 170,000 since it was completed in mid-June, will continue to attract sufficient backing from his Republican allies on Capitol Hill depends very much on how lawmakers respond on Monday to the testimony of Gen Petraeus.
“He has made a number of statements over the years that have not proved to be factual,” said Harry Reid, the Democratic majority Senate leader. Mr Reid predicted the assessments of Gen Petraeus and Mr Crocker would “pass through the White House spin machine, where facts are often ignored or twisted and intelligence is cherry picked”.
The outlines of the general’s testimony, which will be followed later this week by Mr Bush’s own progress report, have been apparent for weeks. The Princeton-educated general, who wrote the US army’s manual on counter-insurgency last year, is expected to point to strong security gains in Baghdad and its surrounding provinces.
But he is also expected to concede that the surge has so far largely failed to fulfil its principal rationale of stimulating political reconciliation between Iraqi Sunni and Shia groups.
Following his testimony, which takes place on Monday and on Wednesday, the political debate in Washington is likely to shift to the Democrats, some of whom want to revive efforts to mandate a timeline for the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, while others are contemplating less provocative legislation designed to attract the support of moderate Republicans.
There is speculation that Gen Petraeus may float the possibility of a modest cut in troop numbers early next year, warning that an immediate reduction would imperil the fragile security gains achieved by the surge. However, one senior military official said that no decision on cuts have yet been taken. Mr Bush said last week that it may become possible to start bringing troops home if security continued to improve. But he made clear the decision would be based on conditions in Iraq rather than politics on Capitol Hill.
Neither is likely to placate Democratic lawmakers. “The president’s escalation was supposed to give the Iraqi government and the ethnic groups the room they needed to make political progress,” says Rahm Emmanuel, a senior Democratic lawmaker. “That progress simply has not happened.”
Get alerts on US downturn when a new story is published