Petraeus to offer token withdrawal of troops in pivotal report on war in Iraq

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The Independent US

The US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, went to the Pentagon yesterday for a dress rehearsal of tough questioning – a "murder board" in American military jargon – before his much anticipated address to Congress on the status of the war today.

His testimony promises to be the most consequential by an American commander since 1967, the darkest days of the Vietnam War, when General William Westmoreland came to Washington to assuage doubts about a distant war.

General Petraeus is expected to offer the token withdrawal of 4,000 or so troops starting in January while dangling the prospect of further pull-outs later on. His proposals reflect a deeper argument raging at the highest levels of the US military over the scale of cutbacks. The Pentagon high command favours slashing US forces by three quarters over the next three years – in preparation for an expected conflict with Iran. General Petraeus and his fellow officers in Baghdad still believe the war in Iraq can be won.

The four-star general's appearance today has been preceded by a carefully orchestrated lobbying campaign of politicians and the media. His congressional testimony will be aimed as much at American public opinion, which continues to be against the war, with 62 per cent saying it was not worth fighting, and 60 per cent saying that the US "is not making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq".

Public opinion has already been softened by glowing profiles of the warrior-scholar Petraeus and a $15m (£7.5m) television advertising campaign by a new organisation calling itself Freedom Watch, headed by a former White House press secretary.

General Petraeus, who arrived quietly in Washington last week, was revealed to be studying three classified ring-bound folders of statistics, maps and analysis for his presentation. He took time out for seven-mile-long jogs from his military quarters in Virginia crossing the Potomac river to more genteel Georgetown. He made time to visit one of his former battalion commanders, Col Greg Gadson, an American football star for the army who lost both legs in Baghdad.

For President George Bush, the stakes could hardly be higher. Deeply unpopular with a public that is sickened by the bloody toll of the war, he is relying on General Petraeus to restore credibility to his tattered Iraq policy.

With a US death toll of 3,760 and more than 26,000 wounded, only a small minority (28 per cent) of Americans believe the President's surge policy has made the Iraq situation better. Most (58 per cent) believe it has made no difference, while 12 per cent think it has made the situation worse.

But the White House appeared confident over the weekend that the picture General Petraeus paints of improving security in Iraq will be convincing enough. The administration's hope is that it will confound increasingly sceptical public opinion while frightening the Democrats into dropping demands for a clear exit strategy. Mr Bush's objective, his critics say, is to keep the war going until January 2009, leaving it for his successor to deal with.

On America's television talk shows yesterday, the tactics that General Petraeus is expected to pursue were widely debated. But, unusually for Washington, the details of his testimony remained under wraps. There were no advance interviews by the media savvy commander and no talk show appearances. Instead, in carefully calibrated leaks, the White House revealed that any significant changes to the current war strategy by Congress would jeopardise the limited security and political progress made so far.

In a letter to all US forces at the weekend, General Petraeus gave some flavour of what he will tell Congress today: The surge, he said, "has not worked out as we had hoped." But he claimed that the US has made significant gains in recent months. "The number of attacks across the country has declined in eight of the past 11 weeks, reaching during the last week in August a level not seen since June 2006."

General Petraeus will also tell Congress that he needs to keep the extra 30,000 combat troops he was given this year, arguing that it is the only viable option to stop Iraq plunging into further chaos.