WASHINGTON – The top U.S. military and diplomatic officials in Iraq must answer during their appearances on Capitol Hill this week whether operations in Iraq have made the United States safer, the Senate's top Democrat said Monday.
Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker will appear before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees on Tuesday to deliver their report on progress in Iraq. They'll follow-up with House committees on Wednesday.
"There are a number of questions that they must be asked by members of the Senate," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, speaking on the Senate floor. "First one: 'Will our troops come home soon?' Or 'When will our troops come home?' And I think they should be asked, 'Has Iraq made America safer?'"
The Nevada Democrat's speech is a call to arms among Democrats, who wrested control of Congress from Republicans in 2006 in part on an anti-war platform. Reid won't participate in Tuesday's hearings — he's not a member of the panels hosting Petraeus and Crocker — but he sets the Senate's legislative agenda.
Petraeus and Crocker on Tuesday will embody the Bush administration's ongoing effort in Iraq to stabilize the country and try to foster a democratic government there.
This is their first briefing before lawmakers since they appeared last September. They will lay out progress resulting from the troop surge that began a year ago, sending another 30,000 U.S. troops into battle to quell sectarian violence.
The administration is seeking $100 billion between now and September to continue the fight there, and is expected to seek a "pause" in a series of troop withdrawals that began last fall. When the troop surge began, troop levels stood at about 130,000 troops. The administration reportedly wants to hold troop levels at just below 140,000 — to get a better grip on the security situation — when the current set of drawdowns is complete.
Democrats are poised to call for further cuts in troop levels in and around Baghdad. They've complained that the administration has ignored a rising Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, and want more troops sent there. It remains to be seen if Democrats will be appeased by an announcement last week that the administration wants to send more troops to the Central Asian country.
Also expected to play a role in this week's hearings is a recent spike in violence in the southern Iraqi port city, Basra. Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr clashed with government forces, which had to call on U.S. forces to aid the battle. Fighting halted only after Sadr-aligned lawmakers in Iran helped broker a cease-fire.
White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto on Monday told reporters that Congress will be getting the unvarnished facts out of Iraq from Petraeus and Crocker, a claim greeted with skepticism by Democrats.
"I think we've thrown out all of the rose-colored glasses in how we look at Iraq and try to look at it through clear lenses as to what is actually going on in the country," Fratto said of the administration.
"And what is happening there, I think what we are all seeing is that the Iraqi political leadership is trying to take hold of the security for their country," Fratto said. "They took a very bold, aggressive action in Basra."
While not an "overall success," Fratto said, "We learned a lot about what the capabilities of the Iraqi army are, and we learned a lot — and maybe this is even the most important thing — of what the capabilities and intentions of the Iraqi leadership are to go after criminal elements and illegal militias in their country, and to evenly enforce the rule of law across the country."
Without giving any hints of what Bush will do with regard to troop levels, Fratto said the president will give his take on Petraeus and Crocker's report on Thursday.
Military officials told FOX News that Bush is expected to announce a reduction in combat tour lengths, cutting them down from 15 to 12 months, where they were early last year. The Pentagon hiked the combat tour lengths due to strain partly from the troop surge.
Iran's influence in Iraq also is likely to come up. U.S. officials confirmed Monday that they are scheduled to hold ambassadorial-level talks in mid-April with Iraq and Iranian officials.
But officials, including Crocker as recently as last week, have no qualms about pointing to Iran's meddling. Crocker said mortars falling last week on the Baghdad Green Zone were surely made in Iran.
Noting reports that Crocker and Petraeus are expected to endorse holding troop levels steady for the time being rather than continuing drawdowns, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement saying that Americans "understand the enormous cost of the war in Iraq and are looking for more than running out the clock until the next president takes office in January 2009."
She highlighted the financial sore point of the Iraq war, suggesting that with the $10.3 billion a month the Congressional Research Service estimates is spent in Iraq, any number of other things could be done, including paying one year's salary for 2,000 Border Patrol agents, providing a year's worth of Pell college grants to 18,000 students, or providing 48,000 homeless veterans a place to live for a year.
"Every day that we are spending millions in Iraq means missed opportunities to invest in critical priorities here at home," Pelosi said.