WASHINGTON (AFP) – General David Petraeus insisted that the US military surge in Iraq is working and that 30,000 soldiers could be withdrawn next year but did not convince Democrats who will grill the commander on Tuesday.
During testimony to the House of Representatives on Monday, Petraeus battled repeated interruptions by anti-war protestors and rejected angry Democratic claims that President George W. Bush’s war plan was a failure.
“The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met,” Petraeus, in green dress uniform bearing a chestful of medal ribbons, told lawmakers.
Petraeus was to appear before powerful US Senate committees on Tuesday.
The rare joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees on Monday opened a pivotal week for Bush’s handling of the four-year war which has left more than 3,700 US troops and tens of thousands of civilians dead.
Democrats argued that the extra 28,500 US troops sent to Iraq had failed in its prime goal of driving political reconciliation.
But the general warned “a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences.”
He said gradual troop withdrawals were feasible and would reduce troops near to pre-surge levels by the middle of next year.
A marine expeditionary unit of about 2,000 troops would leave Iraq this month and not be replaced, and an army combat brigade of about 4,000 troops will redeploy in December.
The impact of reductions would be to effectively end the surge in 10 months.
Before the reinforcements started in February, around 130,000 US troops were in Iraq.
Military officials had previously acknowledged that continuing the surge after mid-2008 would be difficult because of the lack of available forces to keep troop levels so high.
Petraeus angered Democrats by saying further decisions on troop numbers could not be made until next March at the earliest.
“In my professional judgment, it would be premature to make recommendations on the pace of such reductions at this time,” Petraeus said.
He said civilian deaths had “declined significantly” in recent months. A US official auditor last week however questioned the way the military had calculated the statistics on sectarian violence.
Petraeus also warned Iran was using its special forces to fight a “proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.”
Crocker added “Iran would be a winner” if the United States abandoned Iraq, and argued a “secure, stable, democratic Iraq at peace with its neighbors is, in my view, attainable.”
The Iraqi government welcomed the comments by Petraeus and Crocker and said it anticipated US troops will be less involved in combat operations in the war-torn country in the near term.
“We anticipate in the near term a relaxation of the requirement for coalition forces to be in direct combat operation,” Iraqi National Security Advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie told a Baghdad press conference.
In Washington, Democratic senators signalled Petraeus could expect a rough ride during Tuesday’s hearings, also take place on the politically sensitive sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Bush has called Iraq the central front of the “war on terror” sparked by the devastating strikes, but Democrats view it as a diversion from the real fight against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“Clearly, continuing to pursue the president’s flawed escalation policy until at least July 2008 is not in the national interest of the United States,” said Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.
Defeated 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry also promised to take Petraeus on.
“Nothing today suggested that President Bush’s eight months of escalation have done anything to achieve political progress in a deadly civil war,” Kerry said.
Bush, bound by law to provide a report on the war’s progress by Saturday, is expected to make a televised address this week.
Petraeus and Crocker were due before the Senate Foreign Relations committee at 9:30 am (1330 GMT) on Tuesday and the Armed Services committee four-and-a-half hours later.