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Petraeus Delivers Report on Conditions in Iraq

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

The long-awaited testimony of Gen. David Petraeus before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees began early today. Chairman Ike Skelton of the Armed Services Committee began by saying the efforts of the so-called surge were too little too late.

Representative IKE SKELTON (Democrat, Missouri; Chairman, House Armed Services Committee): One of the great ironies of this hearing today is that Gen. Petraeus who sits here before us is almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq. But he's a right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short. If we had your vision and approach, General, early on, we might not have gotten to the point where our troops are caught in the midst of brutal sectarian fighting without an Iraqi government bridging the political divides that drive the violence.

The surge was intended to provide breathing space. Breathing space to Iraqis to bridge sectarian divides with real political compromises. And while our troops are holding back the opposing team to let them make a touchdown, the Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball.

YDSTIE: Chairman Skelton was joined by Representative Tom Lantos of California who said Gen. Petraeus was a capable public servant, but lamented the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had done little to foster political progress in Iraq.

Representative TOM LANTOS (Democrat, California): Prime Minister Maliki has not shown the slightest inclination to move in the direction of compromise. Instead of working to build national institutions, a truly Iraqi army, a competent bureaucracy, a non-sectarian police force, Maliki has moved in the opposite direction. The so-called unity accord announced with such fanfare a couple of weeks ago is just another in a long list of empty promises. Instead of acting as a leader for Iraq as a whole, Maliki has functioned as the front man for Shiite partisans. And he has presided over a Shiite coalition that includes some of the most notorious militias, death squads and sectarian thugs in Iraq.

This is not what the American people had in mind. And when Mr. Maliki states, as he recently did, that if the Americans leave, he can find, quote, "new friends." We are reminded most forcefully of his and his party's intimate ties to Iran.

YDSTIE: Lantos went on to say al-Maliki needs to understand that American troops could not be expected to do the heavy lifting in Iraq indefinitely.

Rep. LANTOS: We need to send Maliki's government a strong message, loud and clear, removing a brigade...

Representative ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN (Republican, Florida): I am distressed by the accusations leveled by some in the media and by some members of Congress during hearings like these, calling into question the integrity of our military, accusing the military of cherry-picking positive numbers to reflect a dramatic decline in sectarian violence. Some in Congress accuse you, Gen. Petraeus, of presenting a report that is simply White House propaganda.

I have more respect for the military and for the military leaders' regard for the men and women whom they lead. And to believe that you would misrepresent the facts and alter conclusions to serve partisan purposes. I trust your reporting and that of our troops on the ground regarding the levels of sectarian violence over those compiled by individuals and entities who wish to discredit the information to justify an immediate withdrawal.

Gen. Petraeus, does this report reflect your knowledge and conclusions regarding the facts on the ground in Iraq? Do you stand behind it? The personal attacks launched today by MoveOn.org against Gen. Petraeus, calling this man of honor and courage General Betray Us, in a full-page ad in The New York Times, is outrageous and it is deplorable.

YDSTIE: That was Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in support of Gen. Petraeus. But it was some 40 minutes before Gen. Petraeus finally addressed the committee. He began by saying unequivocally that the so-called surge is working. And for American troops to leave Iraq now would have terrible results.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, Multinational Force, Iraq): One may argue that the best way to speed the process in Iraq is to change the MNF-I mission from one that emphasizes population security, counterterrorism and transition, to one that is strictly focused on transition and counterterrorism. Making that change now would, in our view, be premature. We have learned before that there is a real danger in handing over tasks to the Iraqi security forces before their capacity and local conditions warrant.

In fact, the drafters of the recently released National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq recognize this danger when they wrote, and I quote, "we assess that changing the mission of coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary counter-combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent al-Qaida in Iraq from establishing a safe haven, would erode security gains achieved thus far."

In describing the recommendations I have made, I should note again that like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort. There are no easy answers or quick solutions. And although, we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time. Our assessments underscore, in fact, the importance of recognizing that a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences.

YDSTIE: Gen. David Petraeus on Capitol Hill today. The hearings continue at this hour. Stay tuned to NPR for further coverage.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.