WASHINGTON (AP) – Gen. David Petraeus told Congress on Monday he envisions the withdrawal of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by next summer, beginning with a Marine contingent later this month.
In long-awaited testimony, the commanding general of the war said last winter’s buildup in U.S. troops had met its military objectives “in large measure.”
As a result, he told a congressional hearing and a nationwide television audience, “I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level … by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve.”
Testifying in a military uniform bearing four general’s stars and a chestful of medals, Petraeus said he had already provided his views to the military chain of command.
Rebutting charges that he was merely doing the White House’s bidding, he said firmly, “I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress.”
His testimony came at a politically pivotal moment in the war, with the Democratic-controlled Congress pressing for troop withdrawals and the Bush administration hoping to prevent wholesale Republican defections.
Petraeus said that a unit of about 2,000 Marines will depart Iraq later this month, beginning a drawdown that would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers.
After that, another four brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008, he said. That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq, roughly the number last winter when President George W. Bush decided to dispatch additional forces.
Petraeus said a decision about further reductions would be made next March.
While he focused his remarks mostly on military matters, he also noted the failure thus far of the Iraqi government to take the actions needed to stabilize the country for the long term.
“Lack of adequate governmental capacity, lingering sectarian mistrust and various forms of corruption add to Iraq’s challenges,” he said.
Using charts and graphs to illustrate his points, Petraeus conceded that the military gains have been uneven in the months since Bush ordered the buildup last winter.
But he also said that there has been an overall decline in violence.
“The level of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, with the level of incidents in the past two weeks the lowest since June of 2006,” Petraeus said.
Petraeus also said the Iraqi military is slowly gaining competence and gradually “taking on more responsibility for their security.”
He cited Anbar province as an example of Iraqis turning against terrorists, adding, “we are seeing similar actions in other locations as well.”
Bush and his political allies have worked forcefully in recent weeks to shore up Republican support.
One organization with ties to the administration has spent millions on television advertisements, and Bush traveled to Anbar province last week to highlight improved security in the vast western stretches of Iraq.
Bush also called Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the hours before Petraeus spoke, and is expected to deliver a nationwide address on the war in the next few days.
Despite the administration’s efforts, fresh polls reflected significant public opposition to the war.
A USA Today/Gallup Poll taken in the past few days found that 60 percent of those surveyed favor setting a timetable for removing troops.
Only 35 percent favor keeping the troops in Iraq until the situation improves.
Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were the only witnesses at a nationally televised hearing punctuated by numerous protests from anti-war demonstrators in the audience.
Over and over, Rep. Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat presiding, ordered police to remove the demonstrators.
“This is intolerable,” he said at one point.
Skelton and fellow lawmakers spoke first, as is customary in Congress, and Petraeus listened to more than 45 minutes of political rhetoric.
His testimony was delayed another 10 minutes by a malfunctioning microphone, but when he began to speak, the lawmakers arrayed on the dias across from him listened intently.
Crocker followed Petraeus to the microphone. The veteran diplomat said he could “not guarantee success” in Iraq.
But he said he believes “it is attainable” and any significant shift away from the current strategy would embolden Iraq and al-Qaida despite difficulties with the Iraqi government.
Crocker employed some of the most stark rhetoric of the hearing, when he bluntly said al-Qaida had “overplayed its hand” in Anbar province.
“Anbaris began to reject its excesses, be they beheading school children or cutting off people’s fingers for smoking,” he said.
Skelton, a moderate midwesterner and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, welcomed Petraeus to the hearing with wistful words of praise.
Petraeus is “almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he’s the right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short,” he said.
Petraeus and Crocker listened quietly at the witness table as Skelton called on them to “tell us why we should continue sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis won’t make the tough sacrifices leading to reconciliation.”