The commander of US forces in Iraq delivered his long-awaited assessment of Iraq yesterday, telling a war-weary Congress that the "surge" of troops in the conflict was starting to pay off.
"The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," General David Petraeus said, flatly contradicting recent US reports describing setbacks and failure and increased sectarian violence. The most important development of the past eight months, the general said, was the rejection of al-Qa'ida by Sunni tribes in Anbar province, and the effect spreading elsewhere.
The White House hopes that the general's appearance will prove to be a turning point for the United States as it tries to extricate itself from Iraq without causing the breakup of the country or the emergence of another hostile regime.
General Petraeus is an increasingly a controversial figure. His admirers describe him as a brilliant soldier as well as a counterterrorism expert. Opponents says he is an uncritical supporter of President Bush's failing policies who has bamboozled Congressional opponents of the war.
The general's much-anticipated testimony was initially delayed when his microphone did not work. Once he began, he forcefully promised Congress that: "We will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level... by next summer without jeopardising the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve."
While offering to withdraw a token marine brigade next month and an army brigade shortly afterwards, he said a dramatic withdrawal at this stage would be devastating.
Despite his onslaught, there was plenty of scepticism in the committee room yesterday. Tom Lantos, the Democratic chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "The administration's myopic policies in Iraq have created a fiasco ... We cannot take any of this administration's assertions on Iraq at face value any more."
Mr Lantos insisted that the Bush administration has sent General Petraeus and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, "to convince Congress that victory is at hand".
"With all due respect to you, I must say, I don't buy it," Mr Lantos said, adding that "strategically, the escalation has failed" .
General Petraeus responded by delivering a blizzard of statistics which demonstrated, he said that the insurgents and al-Qai'da supporters were being defeated. He said continued progress would allow him to reduce US troop numbers by 30,000 as early as next summer. The withdrawals would reduce US combat troop strength to 130,000, the level before the surge.
He also produced charts which purported to show that violence has fallen sharply in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq. The number of attacks and deaths would be lower without the attacks of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, he said. And one of his charts showed that two Iraqi provinces have seen greater violence during the surge.
The general also claimed that Iran is using its irregular Al Quds force to help the Iraqi insurgency, a charge the US has been making for several months. Iran's aim, he said, was to create a proxy militia inside Iraq, just as it had in Lebanon with Hizbollah.
The testimony is also expected to affect the US presidential campaign, where Democratic candidates are exploiting the public's deep opposition to the war to try to win control of the White House.
The Democrats want a rapid withdrawal of forces and the prospect of 30,000 troops being brought home by next summer could be seen as an incentive for them. However, many feel it is still too little and too late.
The general was also at pains to rebut charges that he was doing the bidding of the White House, saying: "I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress."
Feelings ran high in the committee room, where anti-war hecklers chanted: "Generals lie, children die", and: "War criminal, war criminal", before the committee chairman, Ike Skelton, decreed: "Out they go!" He warned that others disrupting the hearing would be prosecuted.
Mr Crocker, who also gave testimony, said: "Our country has given a great deal of blood and treasure." He added that it will take patience to achieve success in Iraq and warned that withdrawing forces at this stage would only lead to failure.
Democrats and Republicans both admire General Petraeus and the White House has also turned to him to give a boost to its policies at a time when Mr Bush's popularity has collapsed, in large part because of the war.
Before his testimony General Petraeus was being praised by Democrats even as they criticised the war. Mr Skelton, a Democrat, described him as " almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq", while adding that "he's the right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short."
The hearing yesterday will be followed today – the anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks – with more testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee. This is all part of emergency war-funding legislation which was passed by Congress last May.
Congress provided $95bn (£46.8bn) to pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan until the end of September and laid down 18 political, economic and security "benchmarks" for the Iraqi government to meet to nudge it on the road to national reconciliation.
Claims and counter-claims
* Impact of surge
General Petraeus said: "The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met." It is true that security incidents and the number of civilian deaths have declined. He also hailed the agreement of Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province to stop co-operating with al-Qa'ida. But the arrangement in Anbar cannot be attributed only to the effects of the "surge". Al-Qa'ida has not been defeated, highlighting the difficulty of eradicating such a loose terror network by simply eliminating its leaders. Meanwhile, the political effects of the surge have yet to be felt.
* Troop cuts
He says: "I believe we will be able to reduce our forces to pre-surge level by next summer without jeopardising our security gains."
He recommended a very gradual reduction to pre-surge levels by mid-July next year, meaning that about 130,000 would still be in Iraq at that time. But he refused to speculate beyond that date. He did announce the departure of a Marine unit this month and said a brigade of 3,500 to 4,000 troops should be withdrawn by the new year. Democrats have already rejected these numbers as insufficient. Senator Robert Casey deplored the "attempt to throw Congress a bone and begin to pull some troops out".
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraqi forces needed " more effort and time" before they could replace coalition troops.
General Petraeus said: "I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress."
He rejected claims that his report reflected the wishes of the White House and stressed his figures were reliable. But they were contradicted by the Iraqi government and the UN. The Senate majority leader, Democrat Harry Reid, said: "He has made statements over the years that have not proven to be factual. It's Bush's report."Reuse content