Iraq troop surge working, says top US general

Testimony of top commander in Iraq before Democrat-controlled Congress buys time for Bush.

THE top American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, reported to Congress yesterday on the situation in the war-ravaged country.

His bottom line: The military strategy is working and more time is needed to finish the job, but a limited pullout of US troops – largely symbolic – is possible by early next year.

In essence, Gen Petraeus bought time for President George W. Bush, who is under siege from a hostile Democrat-controlled Congress and public opinion demanding an immediate withdrawal.

“There is no question that despite the barrage of criticism Mr Bush faces, the general has secured for the White House more time,” Pentagon consultant Daniel Goure told The Straits Times.

“He is the man on the ground, he is the man approved by the Senate, including a large number of Democrats, and he is the man that has achieved some success in just a short period of time.”

In his long-awaited testimony, Gen Petraeus said that the recent troop surge in Iraq had reduced sectarian violence and made the country safer.

He proposed a gradual withdrawal of the 168,000-strong force of US troops in Iraq – although the reductions he has in mind are unlikely to satisfy anti-war Democrats.

He said that cuts might begin in mid-December, with the pullout of an American combat brigade of about 4,000 troops. By mid-July, US forces in Iraq could be down to 15 combat brigades, the force level in Iraq before Mr Bush announced plans to send in reinforcements in January.

The precise timing of such reductions, which would leave about 130,000 soldiers in Iraq, would depend on conditions in the country.

But Gen Petraeus indicated that it was too soon to present recommendations on reducing forces below that level, suggesting instead a March timeframe to outline proposals on this question.

The general, whose testimony has become the most anticipated from a military commander in decades, is scheduled to appear before four congressional committees over two days along with the US Ambassador to Iraq, Mr Ryan Crocker.

Their report will complement a national address that the President is expected to make this week which the White House said would “lay out a vision for future involvement in Iraq” that the public “and their elected leaders of both parties can support”.

The White House has presented Gen Petraeus and Mr Crocker as unbiased professionals and no doubt their recommendations will weigh heavily in any decision Mr Bush makes on the future course in Iraq.

Mr Bush has said for years that decisions about force levels should be left to military commanders.

But he will clearly be in for a rough ride with the Democrats who have refused to budge from their demand for a complete pullout from Iraq.

Indeed, lawmakers stuck to their battle lines as they took to the airwaves. Republican White House hopeful Senator John McCain told the ABC news network on Sunday that he was “guardedly optimistic” that if the surge continues, “you could see a messy but favourable outcome”.

Warning of the regional consequences of failure in Iraq, he said: “I am convinced that it will be chaos, genocide, and we’ll be back with greater sacrifice.”

The Democrats refused to concede any ground, arguing that the Petraeus report was far from independent. Democrat Senator Joseph Biden, also a contender in the 2008 White House race and just back from Iraq, said: “I expect him to say that. And I really respect him. And I think he’s dead, flat wrong.”

Mr Biden said on NBC television that the President “is putting American forces in the middle of a civil war to maintain the status quo. That is unconscionable, and he’s wrong”.

But Mr Bush appeared to have gained the momentum in the battle with Capitol Hill with the Petraeus report.

A New York Times/CBS News Poll out yesterday suggested the White House may get a lift from Gen Petraeus’ testimony.

When asked to choose who could best end the war in Iraq, 68 per cent of those polled said they most trusted the military commanders.

Dr Goure explained: “It’s going to be a lot harder for Congress to come up with reasons to reject the President’s war strategy.”

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