It’s U.S. or Iran

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Arizona Republic – Editorial: Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker last addressed Congress seven months ago, reporting that the surge in U.S. troops had significantly reduced violence in Iraq – much more so, in fact, than anyone had anticipated possible. The Arizona Republic

Editorial

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker last addressed Congress seven months ago, reporting that the surge in U.S. troops had significantly reduced violence in Iraq – much more so, in fact, than anyone had anticipated possible.

On their return to Capitol Hill on Tuesday, they reported still more improvement there, both politically and militarily.

The essence of what they had to say, both to Congress and to the White House, is that conditions in Iraq have improved significantly but remain fragile and reversible.

The Iraqi army has improved markedly but is not yet in a position to guarantee the security of the nation, Petraeus said. Al-Qaida in Iraq has been routed from most of the country, is in disarray in terms of leadership but remains capable of great violence, he said.

Further, he said, numerous other malign actors – including “special groups” like Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia and other groups of terrorists, subversives and criminal bands – retain a real potential to roll back all the hard-won progress of the past 16 months. A case in point, both Petraeus and Crocker noted, is the recent fighting in Basra, where Sadr’s militia – funded, trained and armed by Iran – remains potent.

So, it was in this context that Petraeus said he would recommend a 45-day halt to U.S. troop reductions in Iraq once they reached pre-surge levels in July.

“At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and over time determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions,” Petraeus said. “The process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit.”

Considering the potential consequences of a rapid, inflexible troop-reduction schedule, Petraeus’ recommendation for a pause – a “period of consolidation and evaluation” – is hardly surprising. Throw in the general’s impressive record of achievement since the start of the troop surge early last year, and it becomes clear that Petraeus has earned the benefit of the doubt, at the least.

The pressure to reduce the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is enormous. Some of those pressures are (obviously) political: Petraeus’ audience included all three major candidates for president, two of whom are inclined to a rapid force reduction.

But it is not all political. Petraeus acknowledged that the Iraq and Afghanistan operations have placed enormous strains on the U.S. military. No one is better positioned than Petraeus to assess the limits of service in a war zone.

The general and his political colleague, Crocker, both expressed cautious optimism about progress in Iraq.

Even the recent eruptions of violence in Basra and Baghdad helped demonstrate the central Iraqi government’s willingness to confront Shiite militias and gangs, a step the U.S. has long considered necessary to reach a real peace in Iraq.

Power abhors a vacuum, especially in a region in flux like Iraq. And Petraeus is right to worry that a too-small U.S. presence would give the mullahs of Iran a grand opportunity to fill it there.

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