General David Petraeus, the commander of United States forces in Iraq, admitted on Friday that sending 30 000 more troops into the war zone in January had failed to yield the desired results. ”It has not worked out as we had hoped,” the general said.
The acknowledgement by Petraeus that the situation in Iraq is ”exceedingly complex” and that progress had been ”uneven” came on the eve of his testimony to Congress on the state of the war. He offered the assessment in a letter to US forces serving in Iraq that was obtained by the Washington Post.
The appearance by Petraeus, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Iraq, in front of Congress has been the subject of much anticipation, with a rebellious legislature and a war-weary US public demanding evidence that the Bush administration’s strategy is working.
When Petraeus took up his command in February, the central rationale for the surge was that the deployment of an additional 30 000 US troops would give breathing space to the government of Nuri al-Maliki to draft legislation and embark on political reconciliation.
In his letter to the troops the general acknowledged that had not occurred. ”Many of us had hoped this summer would be a time of tangible political progress at the national level,” Petraeus wrote. ”All participants, Iraqi and coalition alike, are dissatisfied by the halting progress on major legislative initiatives,” he wrote.
The expressions of disappointment were a departure for Petraeus, who has been forceful in conveying what he sees are the success stories of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq.
He continued to emphasise there had been isolated gains in Iraq, including what he called ”local reconciliation”, in the isolated pockets where tribal leaders had formed alliances against al-Qaeda.
The general also paid tribute to the strains the long and repeated deployments are putting on US forces. ”We have to contend with the relentless pace of operations, the crushing heat, and the emotions that we all experience during long deployments and tough combat,” he wrote.
In his testimony to Congress next week, Petraeus is expected to report that the deployment of additional forces has helped reduce sectarian violence. The claim is at odds with other testimony to Congress on Friday that found no let-up in attacks. The general will also highlight the US military’s success in pacifying what was once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency in Anbar province.
On the question of a troop withdrawal, the general has indicated in a number of interviews this week that he might not replace troops when they come to the end of their deployment next April.
”Based on the progress our forces are achieving, I expect to be able to recommend that some of our forces will be redeployed without replacement,” he told the Boston Globe by email on Friday.
Press reports have also suggested that Petraeus may recommend a token withdrawal of just one brigade, about 3 500 to 4 000 troops, early next year.
The testimony from Petraeus and Crocker follows on from a string of unremittingly bleak assessments on the persistent dysfunction of Maliki’s government and the continuing sectarian violence.
On Friday, David Walker, head of the government accountability office, told a Senate committee that the Iraqi government had met only three of 18 benchmarks of progress on the economy and security situations and in political reconciliation.
He also disputed Petraeus’s figures on sectarian violence. ”We have questions about it,” he told the committee. He said the level of attacks in July was about where it was in February, before the surge took effect.
General James Jones, who was Nato’s supreme commander in Europe until earlier this year, was equally scathing in his report to the committee.
He warned that the US troops were acting as a crutch to the Maliki government, discouraging it from standing on its own. ”There is a fine line between assistance and dependence,” his report said.
Petraeus is expected to deliver a more upbeat assessment. The general told the Globe: ”Few of these political solutions would have been possible without the improved security provided by coalition and Iraqi forces.”
Those limited improvements in security in Anbar and elsewhere could Gen Petraeus the pretext to offer a frustrated Congress the possibility of a withdrawal of some of the forces involved in the surge.
Last week, Petraeus indicated in a number of interviews that he does not foresee replacing the troops deployed in the surge when their tours of duty in Iraq come to an end in April 2008.
Military experts have repeatedly warned that the surge is not sustainable beyond spring.
Petraeus told the Globe that he foresees a gradual reduction of US forces in Baghdad from their current strength of 168 000 troops. That will, over time, reduce the total number of personnel in Iraq. ”The process will take time, but we want to be sure to maintain the security gains that coalition and Iraqi forces have worked so hard to achieve.”
Senior military officials, meanwhile, told reporters in Iraq this week that Petraeus might withdraw a single brigade by January.
Such a move would be a political decision, a bow towards moderate Republicans who have grown increasingly critical of George Bush’s war strategy.
Any further withdrawals would be contingent on the ability of US and Iraqi forces to sustain recent gains in security. – Guardian Unlimited Ã‚