Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker testified Monday that the surge of U.S. forces in Iraq has led to military and political progress and that ultimate success in the mission is possible. But the real bottom line of their presentation to two congressional committees was a deeply sobering one: "Substantial U.S. resolve and commitment," as Mr. Crocker put it, will be needed for some time to come, not only to meet U.S. goals but also to avert the devastating consequences of an early withdrawal. "Our current course is hard," said Mr. Crocker. "The alternatives are far worse."
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Gen. Petraeus cited statistics showing a sharp drop in violence in Baghdad and Iraq as a whole in recent months - in marked contrast to congressional auditors who last week reported that they could not determine whether sectarian violence had been reduced. He said a Marine detachment and an Army brigade could be withdrawn this year and overall U.S. troop strength returned to pre-surge levels by next July. But the general said it would be seven months before he could deliver a judgment about a further reduction of U.S. forces. "Like Ambassador Crocker, I believe Iraq's problems will require a long-term effort," he said.
Mr. Crocker's testimony was striking for its defense of Iraqi political leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who have been written off as hopelessly sectarian even by some Washington-based administration officials. The ambassador argued that Mr. Maliki and other leaders have "a deep sense of commitment and patriotism" and "the will to tackle the country's pressing problems, although it will take longer than we ... anticipated." As the U.S. official charged with pushing Iraq's politicians to act, it's perhaps not surprising that Mr. Crocker would cite the small steps they have taken as "seeds of reconciliation." He was more convincing in describing the likely consequences of failure: "Undoubtedly, Iran would be a winner in this scenario, consolidating its influence over Iraqi resources and possibly territory," he said. "In such an environment, the gains made against al-Qaida and other extremist groups could easily evaporate, and they could establish strongholds to be used as safe havens for regional and international operations."
The reports by the general and the ambassador seem to presage a bid by President Bush to pursue the essential strategy of the surge - pacification of Baghdad and other population centers, combined with efforts to promote national political accord - in his remaining time in office. Gen. Petraeus alluded to one alternative that could win considerable congressional support - a shift of mission "to one that is strictly focused on transition and counterterrorism" - but dismissed it as "premature."
But the commander didn't answer the most important question facing the president. "The fundamental source of the conflict in Iraq," he said, "is competition among ethnic and sectarian communities for power and resources." The surge was intended to give Iraqis the opportunity to resolve that competition peacefully - and by that measure it has failed. Mr. Crocker suggests that with more time it may yet succeed. Still, the question remains: If the political reconciliation the president expected is not possible in the near future, should the missions of American forces remain unchanged? That's a question that the president must answer.