WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus told Congress on Monday he envisions the withdrawal of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops 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.”
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 a troop withdrawal deadline and the Bush administration hoping to prevent wholesale Republican defections on the issue.
Initial reaction from Democrats was sour.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was a “token withdrawal,” and Petraeus rebutted him swiftly.
“A very substantial withdrawal,” he countered.
Petraeus didn’t say so, but Ambassador Ryan Crocker suggested that the administration’s troop buildup had prevented a debacle.
Testifying alongside the general, Crocker said 2006 was a “bad year for Iraq. The country came close to unraveling politically, economically and in security terms. 2007 has brought improvement.”
The extent of any improvement has been a matter of debate. The Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency, recently reported that Iraq has partially achieved only four of 18 political and military goals.
While Petraeus 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.
Petraeus 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.”
Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were the only witnesses at a nationally televised hearing punctuated by numerous protests by anti-war demonstrators. Cindy Sheehan, a prominent critic of the war, was among those hustled from the room by police.
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, 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.
The war is in its fifth year and has claimed the lives of more than 3,700 U.S. troops.
Petraeus’ greeting elsewhere wasn’t as warm as Skelton’s praise.
“Cooking the books for the White House,” charged the newspaper advertisement by MoveOn.Org — an allegation that Republicans challenged Democrats to disavow.
Nearly two dozen senators, all Republicans except for Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an independent from Connecticut, called for Democrats to denounce the advertisement.