News Analysis

Gen. David Petraeus’ testimony to Congress was long-awaited. Many moderate Republicans who claim to be uncomfortable with President Bush’s ongoing Iraq war policy insisted on waiting for Petraeus’ September report rather than making “rash” decisions about troop withdrawal. If they were hoping for some fig leaf to continue to support Bush’s war, they got it — but only if they ignored the truth.

Violence continues

Stating, “I wrote this [testimony] myself,” Petraeus praised heightened security capacity and described improvements as “substantial.”

He produced a series of charts on the levels of violence in Iraq. The charts were dated from mid-2006 to August 2007. But according to the charts, civilian deaths, sectarian killings and terrorist activities like suicide bombings, which spiked in late 2006 and early 2007, are at pre-surge levels, despite the general’s rosy spin. And according to news reports, Petraeus is using a formula for measuring violence that doesn’t count car bombings or assassinations if the victim was shot in the front of the head.

Petraeus neglected to inform members of Congress that heightened security in Baghdad has resulted from population displacement. Before the war, Baghdad was about 65 percent Sunni; today it is about 75 to 80 percent Shia. Much of the displacement has come from forced expulsion of Sunnis from Baghdad over the past four years. Surely religious/ethnic cleansing is nothing to brag about as a security improvement.

Anbar sham

Petraeus proceeded to tout the much-discussed “progress” in Anbar Province in western Iraq. Anbar holds approximately 5 percent of Iraq’s population. It’s trumpeted as the “bottom up” solution because some Sunni tribal leaders joined U.S. forces against Al-Qaida.

Yet, according to the Washington Post, a Pentagon report recommending these tactics in Anbar warned that such a situation is “temporary,” something Petraeus did not mention. Petraeus also did not discuss how the U.S. prompted these developments by disengaging militarily in the province and arming Sunni groups who fear Shia dominance in Iraq. No responsible analyst could honestly describe this as a basis for a long-term political reconciliation.

Rep. Barbara Lee, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said, “The debate about alleged military progress in Iraq is a distraction — a smokescreen — that only serves to obscure the basic, fundamental fact that there is no military solution to the situation.”

Token withdrawal

Petraeus then reported that he had recommended a withdrawal of the “surge” forces beginning this month and ending next summer. But his description of this withdrawal as “substantial” is misleading. The surge was scheduled to end next spring anyway with 30,000 troops redeployed back to their original stations. Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), House Foreign Affairs Committee chair, dismissed Petraeus’ plan as a “token withdrawal.”

Petraeus did not provide much detail about U.S. casualties during the surge, but according to Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, more U.S. troops died every month this year than the same month last year.

Why will this be different?

House Armed Services Committee Chair Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) refused to dispute the credibility of Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who also testified. But Skelton picked up on public impatience for promised progress in his single question to Crocker.

Given that we’ve been waiting for progress for more than four years, Skelton pointedly asked, “What makes you think anything will be different in the future?”

Neither Petraeus nor Crocker could substantively answer that.

With 4 million internally and externally displaced Iraqis, 50 percent unemployment and millions of Iraqis requiring emergency care, Iraq’s real-life situation doesn’t fit the White House’s rosy estimates, despite the attempt to make Petraeus sound independent.

U.S. occupation foments crisis

Petraeus and Crocker showed that the occupation of Iraq has not produced positive results. Indeed, the humanitarian crisis has deepened, sectarian conflict has not been resolved and the occupation is actually fomenting sectarianism.

As the Jones Commission report released earlier last week showed, it is the occupation itself that lies at the heart of this failure to “progress.” The congressionally mandated commission, formally known as the Independent Commission on the Security Forces in Iraq, was chaired by former NATO commander and Iraq war subcommander Marine Major Gen. James Jones, and included military commanders, officers and police chiefs. This commission was signed into law by Bush in May.

Its report argues for a changed role for the U.S. military, including handing over to Iraqis full control of their own political and security institutions. Because the occupation itself is the cause of the instability and violence, the Jones report concludes, significant “force reductions and redeployments” are the best path to solving the political crisis in Iraq.

Presidential candidate Bill Richardson argued along similar lines in the Washington Post. “So long as American troops are in Iraq, reconciliation among Iraqi factions is postponed,” he wrote. Leaving U.S. forces there “prevents us from using diplomacy to bring in other nations to help stabilize and rebuild the country.”

Richardson says he is the only Democratic candidate committed to “getting all our troops out and doing so quickly.” He pledged, “If Congress fails to end this war, I will remove all troops without delay and without hesitation, beginning on my first day in office.”

Joel Wendland is managing editor of Political Affairs .