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ROUNDUP: US troop surge can end by mid-2008, general says

By dpa news     Sep 10, 2007 in Politics
The United States could withdraw enough troops from Iraq by next summer to reverse this year's buildup ordered by President George W Bush, the top US commander in Iraq said Monday.
In a highly anticipated report to Congress, General David Petraeus cited improved security in Iraq in proposing that the troop surge, aimed at quelling sectarian violence, could end by mid-July 2008.
"The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," Petraeus told a hearing in the US House of Representatives, but he warned that a premature pullout would be "devastating."
Bush's expansion of US forces in Iraq, announced in January, boosted troop strength from about 130,000 to more than 160,000.
US and Iraqi forces have "dealt significant blows" to al-Qaeda operations in Iraq and violent attacks in the last two weeks have dropped to the lowest in more than a year, Petraeus said.
"Though al-Qaeda and its affiliates remain dangerous, we have taken away a number of their sanctuaries and gained the initiative in many areas," he said.
Petraeus' testimony will be crucial in shaping the debate on the unpopular war in Iraq amid growing calls from Democratic members of Congress to begin troop withdrawals.
He appeared with the US ambassador in Iraq, Ryan Crocker, before the House military and foreign policy committees as part of a congressionally-mandated report. Petraeus will submit his assessment to the White House later this week.
The two Democratic chairmen presiding over the hearing, Representatives Ike Skelton and Tom Lantos, were sceptical that Iraq can be turned around with a government that has made little progress toward reconciling differences between Iraqi ethnic and religious groups.
"No one can make the case the that Iraqi government has made great strides," Skelton said before Petraeus testified.
But Petraeus said Iraqi forces were increasingly providing for the country's security and cited dramatic progress in Anbar province, where local Sunni leaders have allied with US forces in combatting al-Qaeda.
"Based on all this, and on the further progress we believe we can achieve over the next few months, I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level of brigade combat teams by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains that we have fought so hard to achieve," Petraeus said.
Two units deployed as part of the surge are slated to leave Iraq by December, while four other brigades and two Marine battalions could leave by July 2008, bringing forces back to pre-surge levels, he said.
Skelton had several protesters ejected from the hearing. One of them screeched as she was hustled out; another held up a sign, "When generals lie, soldiers die."
Petraeus emphasized that his testimony was based on his own judgement and was not cleared by the White House. In the week before his testimony, Petraeus was greeted in Washington by charges that he would announce conclusions to serve Bush's political needs., a left-wing group, ran a full-page advertisement in the New York Times accusing him of betraying the American people by not speaking truthfully about the conflict, making a play on his name, "General Betray-US."
Republicans criticized the organization and Democrats for questioning Petraeus' integrity.
"I think it's an outrage that we spent the last week prepping the ground, bashing the credibility of a general officer whose trademark is integrity," Representative Duncan Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said.
Crocker told lawmakers that the Shiite-controlled Iraqi government has taken steps to reconcile differences with their Sunni rivals even though it has yet to pass legislation aimed at assisting the process.
The government has reached out to Sunni soldiers who were expelled from the military during the US administration of Iraq after the March 2003 invasion by offering retirement benefits or civilian jobs.
Political progress by the Iraqi government is seen as crucial if violence is to be reduced, and Democratic lawmakers have charged that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has failed to take adequate steps.
Crocker cautioned lawmakers to be more patient as the Iraqi government seeks to tackle difficult challenges, emphasizing that decades of rule by Saddam Hussein meant Iraq had to be rebuilt from "scratch."
"This process will not be quick. It will be uneven (and) punctuated by setbacks as well as achievements," Crocker said.
Crocker acknowledged the frustration caused by the slow pace of the Iraqi government while American casualties rise.
"I am frustrated every day I spend in Iraq, ..." Crocker said.
White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters Monday the report by Petraeus and Crocker was independent and had not been vetted by Bush, who is expected to address the nation in an evening address later this week to discuss Petraeus' findings. dpa mm tc pr