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The Nation

General tells Senate Iraq `not hopeless'

January 24, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush's nominee to be the next commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, told Congress on Tuesday that the situation in the war-torn nation was dire and posed "tough days" ahead, but he pleaded for time to begin executing a new strategy.

Petraeus, who developed the Army's counterinsurgency warfare manual, is expected to win Senate approval this week, despite being an architect of Bush's unpopular new strategy. But as Petraeus fielded questions from senators of both parties about the deepening dilemma facing U.S. forces, he was forthcoming and occasionally blunt in his assessment of American odds in Iraq.

"The situation in Iraq is dire. The stakes are high. There are no easy choices. The way ahead will be very hard," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "But hard is not hopeless."

If confirmed as the replacement for Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., Petraeus will represent the first step in a sweeping military restructuring ordered by Bush as part of his strategy that includes deploying 21,500 additional U.S. troops.

Navy Adm. William J. Fallon faces a hearing Tuesday to succeed retiring Army Gen. John P. Abizaid as commander of U.S. forces throughout the Middle East.

Casey, meanwhile, faces a potentially difficult challenge to his nomination as the next Army chief of staff. Blamed by some for America's problems in Iraq, Casey at his Feb. 1 confirmation hearing will confront opposition from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a supporter of the troop buildup, among others.

Petraeus, 54, who has a doctorate from Princeton University, appeared assured and confident at his hearing, answering questions crisply and directly. When senators gave lengthy speeches, he nodded politely. But the general ran afoul of senators over the issue of a potential nonbinding congressional resolution denouncing the Bush strategy.

In response to a question from McCain, Petraeus said passage of a resolution would not have a "beneficial effect" on troop morale. Asked by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) if the resolution would show the enemy that the American people were divided, Petraeus said it would.

After other senators -- Republicans as well as Democrats -- objected to those answers, Petraeus backed away. When Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) tried to get him to take another swipe at the resolution, Petraeus became more diplomatic.

"Learning that minefields are best avoided and gone around rather than walked through on some occasions, I'd like to leave that one there, Senator," Petraeus said.

Petraeus has served two tours of duty in Iraq, first as commander of the 101st Airborne Division and then as the general overseeing the training of Iraqi forces. For the last 15 months he has been the commanding general at Ft. Leavenworth, Kan., supervising much of the Army's education system and developing the military's war-fighting doctrine, including the new counterinsurgency manual.

At Ft. Leavenworth and in the pages of the Army's academic journal, Petraeus has argued that the most important goal in a counterinsurgency fight is making the population feel safe. And on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, he said that would be the cornerstone of the new Iraq strategy.

Petraeus said the sectarian violence in Baghdad amounted to "soft ethnic cleansing" and he described the risks ordinary Iraqis must take every day as "incalculable." The erosion of security, he said, has become the primary challenge for the U.S.

The new strategy will focus on improving security in Baghdad rather than training Iraqi forces. That, Petraeus said, is as important as the additional forces.

"The objective will be to achieve sufficient security to provide the space and time for the Iraqi government to come to grips with the tough decisions its members must make to enable Iraq to move forward," he said.

Skeptics of the troop escalation noted that the counterinsurgency manual argues that one police officer or soldier is needed for every 50 people. Under that formula, securing Baghdad, a city of 6 million, would require at least 120,000 Iraqi and American troops. By Petraeus' count, 85,000 American and Iraqi troops will be in the capital after the additional U.S. forces arrive.

"You wrote the book, General, but the policy is not by the book," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a member of the committee and a leading presidential contender. "And you are being asked to square the circle, to find a military solution to a political crisis."

Despite Clinton's criticisms of the Bush plan, she said she would support Petraeus' nomination.

"The president is going forward with the policy, the debate is academic," Clinton said outside the hearing room. "I want the very best leadership for the young men and women who will be implementing this strategy, and I have no doubt Gen. Petraeus is the person to try and pull this off."

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