Q&A: Searching for solutions

Al Jazeera answers the basic questions about the upcoming US assessment on Iraq.

Violence has continued in Iraq despite the
so-called “surge” [EPA]

Q: What is the ‘Petraeus report’?

A: The report is in fact a White House assessment of events in Iraq incorporating advice from General David Petraeus, the most senior commander of US forces in Iraq, on the military situation in Iraq following the implementation of the so-called troop surge which deployed an additional 30,000 US soldiers to Iraq from February to mid-June, bringing total US troop numbers in the country to 168,000.

Petraeus will discuss his assessment before a joint session of the house armed services and international relations committees on Monday along with Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, who will, in turn, present his own assessment of the Iraqi political situation under the government of Nuri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, the New York Times newspaper has reported.

On Tuesday the two men will then testify before the senate foreign relations committee and the senate armed services committee.

Both men’s advice will then be incorporated into a White House report to be released on Wednesday, as required by an act of congress calling for a report on the surge to be deliverd by September 15. George Bush, the US president, is expected to address the US nation on Thursday regarding the assessment.

Q: Why is it so important?

Special report

The report follows a succession of earlier reports from different wings of the US political and military system, all of which have depicted a bleak assessment of the current situation in Iraq and the possibilities of improvement.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a US non-partisan government watchdog, found earlier in September that the Iraqi government had failed to meet 11 out of 18 benchmarks set by the US president earlier this year. And on September 6, a panel of former US military commanders recommended that the US government needed to reduce troop numbers so as to appear less of an occupying force, but warned that Iraqi forces were not ready to take over control.

Therefore, the dual issues of progress in Iraq’s government and the prospect of any US troop withdrawal have proved highly contentious for the Bush government, particularly as the US prepares for a presidential election in November 2008.

George Bush, the US president, said on Monday that the troop surge is already working, pointing to a drop in violence in the nation’s troubled al-Anbar province which has been attributed to Sunni Arab leaders joining forces with the US military to combat al-Qaeda fighters, although some military analysts have argued that the success will only prove temporary.

Bush, who spoke during a surprise visit to the Iraqi province, said that US troop levels could possibly be cut as a result of such “successes”.

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However Rob Reynolds, Al Jazeera’s correspondent in Washington DC, says that General Petraeus has been “spectacularly wrong” in the past, writing a glowing editorial in the Washington Post about Iraqi progress in 2004 only weeks before the country descended into a spiral of violence.

General Petraeus is seen as an ambitious, politically astute officer and his future rides on the surge being seen as a success. If it is seen as a failure, so will he, our correspondent says.

As for Iraq’s government, there have been growing calls in the US for the Iraqi prime minister to step down. A study by US intelligence agencies released in late August cast doubt on al-Maliki’s ability to hold together Iraq’s fragile government, already riven with sectarian divisions.

Bush defended al-Maliki as a “good man with a difficult job”, however if Crocker’s assessment is, as expected, bleak on the prospects of al-Maliki’s government, he may find his position increasingly untenable.

Q: What is it expected to say?

The latest leaks to emerge suggest that Petraeus and Crocker will tell US congress that any changes to Bush’s troop surge strategy may jeopardise the situation in Iraq.

They show that the US general will argue that major changes in US strategy in Iraq will only hinder the scant security and political progress that has been made.

US Democrats have been pushing
for a reduction of US troops in Iraq

Petraeus has already hinted that US troop numbers, currently at a record 168,000, may be cut to avoid placing further strain on the overstretched US army.

The Washington Post and New York Times newspapers quoted senior US officials on Friday as saying that the general may withdraw one brigade of between 3,500 and 4,500 US troops from Iraq early next year with more to follow depending on security on the ground.

However, they said General Petraeus was reluctant to commit to a more fixed timetable for withdrawal, citing fears that such small security improvements could be reversed if US troop numbers were shrunk.

Petraeus is also expected to express continued support for the troop surge, pointing to modest reductions in violence in al-Anbar province.

It is less clear what Crocker’s part of the report will say, although it is expected to criticise the lack of political reconciliation and development and to condemn the nation’s ministries as riddled with factionalism and unable to meet the basic benchmarks set for political progress. 

Q: What will the political repercussions be for the US?

Many US Democrats, who have long been pushing for a reduction in troop numbers, have already dismissed the Petraeus report. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US house of representatives, said the report had been vetted by the Bush administration.

“The facts are self-evident that the progress is not being made. They might want to find one or two places where there has been progress, but the plural of anecdote is not data,” she was quoted by the Washington Times newspaper as saying.

Republicans in turn have hit out at Democrats for condemning the report before its release and not acknowledging what is considered to be progress on the ground.

However, US political analysts say a consensus appears to be growing among moderate Democrats and Republicans that a form of troop reduction should begin within the next year.

Some say a compromise may be reached through which the US government could be forced to begin planning for a troop withdrawal but without a fixed timeline, something the Bush administration has consistently rejected.

But Rob Reynolds says the longer term political game being played by Bush and his advisors is to drag out the US presence in Iraq long enough so that he can hand over the entire probem to his successor in 2009.

Bush has said the endgame in Iraq will be a matter for a future president and if his successor happens to be a Democrat who pulls troops out, and if Iraq then descends into chaos, Republicans can conveniently and loudly claim that it was the Democrats who are responsible for having lost Iraq, our correspondent adds.

Source: Al Jazeera


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