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Petraeus: Iraq Progress 'Fragile, Reversible'

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The top American military commander in Iraq and the top U.S. diplomat there told two Senate committees today that the surge in U.S. forces in Iraq has made progress. But they said that progress, while significant, is also reversible.

General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker told the senators that troop reductions should stop in July, and at that time there should be a 45-day period of evaluation. General Petraeus wouldn't say how long he thought it might be before any more reductions could be made.

This was a return appearance by the two men, and General Petraeus referred the senators to his prior testimony.

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commanding General, Multi-National Force-Iraq): Since Ambassador Crocker and I appeared before you seven months ago, there has been significant but uneven security progress in Iraq. Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially, al-Qaida in Iraq and a number of other extremist elements have been dealt serious blows. The capabilities of Iraqi security force elements have grown, and there has been noteworthy involvement of local Iraqis and local security.

Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain. Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Ryan Crocker echoed Petraeus' assessment. Iraq has come a long way, but it could yet come undone. And he addressed the subject that several senators asked about: the role of Iran.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. to Iraq): Iran continuous to undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government to establish a stable, secure state through the training of criminal militia elements engaged in violence against Iraqi security forces, coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.

SIEGEL: The chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, pressed General Petraeus on troop levels. If there's a drawdown through July and then a period of evaluation, what's the best case?

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Chairman, Armed Services Committee): If all goes well, what would be the approximate number of our troops there at the end of the year? Let's assume conditions permitted things to move quickly. What, in your estimate, would be the approximate number of American troops there at the end of the year? Can you give us — just say if you can't give us an estimate…

Ambassador CROCKER: Sir, I can't give you estimate on that.

Sen. LEVIN: All right. You're not going to give us an estimate on that.

SIEGEL: For some protesters in the audience, Petraeus' answers were unsatisfactory. One man shouted, bring them home.

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

Sen. LEVIN: Could…

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

(Soundbite of gavel)

Sen. LEVIN: If you could please…

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

Sen. LEVIN: We're asking the audience…

Unidentified Man: Bring them home.

Sen. LEVIN: …if you could bring the gentlemen out. I'm afraid we're going to have to ask him to leave.

SIEGEL: Republican John Warner of Virginia reminded the two men of the question that he had put to Petraeus back in September.

Sen. JOHN WARNER (Republican, Virginia): I would hope that you could frame a short message at this moment, both of you, to the American people in response to the same question I asked of you last year, general. Is all this sacrifice bringing about a more secure America?

SIEGEL: In September, Petraeus said frankly, he didn't know. Today?

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, I've thought more than a bit about that, senator, since September and though I continue to think it's a question perhaps best answered by folks with a broader view and ultimately will have to be answered by history, I obviously have thoughts on it and on the importance of the…

SIEGEL: Two minutes into the general's answer, Senator Warner interrupted.

Gen. PETRAEUS: ...more important objectives in Iraq…

Sen. WARNER: But general, my time clock is moving pretty quickly. It was a fairly simple question. Does that translate into a greater security for those who of us at home?

SIEGEL: And General Petraeus made a more positive answer.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Senator, I do believe that it is worth it or I would not have, I guess, accepted. I'm, you know, you do what you're ordered to do but you sometimes are asked whether you would like to - or are willing to take on a task. And I took on the task of - the privilege of command of multinational force Iraq because I do believe that it is worth it, and I do believe the interests there are of enormous importance, again to our country, not just to the people of Iraq and the people of that region, and the world.

SIEGEL: General Petraeus talked about Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's offensive in Basra. John McCain asked him what the lesson was that 1,000 Iraqi troops defected or underperformed.

Gen. PETRAEUS: Well, one lesson, senator, is that relatively new forces - what happened was in one case, a brigade that literally had just come out of units at fielding was pressed into operation. The other lesson is a recurring one, and that is the difficulty of local police operating in areas where there is serious intimidation of themselves and of their families.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Suffice to say it was a disappointment.

Gen. PETRAEUS: It was, although it is not over yet, senator.

SIEGEL: Also noteworthy about today's testimony was that all of the presidential contenders participated. During the Armed Services Committee hearing, Republican McCain spoke out forcefully against the withdrawal of U.S. forces. He said a premature withdrawal would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.

Later, Senator Hillary Clinton reiterated her support of a prompt, phased withdraw.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York): I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups, and other problems that confront America.

SIEGEL: And this afternoon, Senator Barack Obama had his chance for questions during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. He said the Iraqi government needs to be held accountable.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I think that increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind - and this is where we disagree - includes a timetable for withdrawal. Nobody is asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured, but increased pressure.

Tomorrow, the general and the ambassador return to Capitol Hill for House committee hearings. 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.