WASHINGTON – Iran has emerged "a winner" as a result of fighting in Iraq, a lawmaker said Wednesday during a hearing featuring President Bush's top deputies in Iraq.
"The most disturbing strategic development of the war is that Iran, the most dangerous state in the region, so far has emerged as the winner," said Rep. Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
"Their enemy Saddam is gone, and in his place is a government seemingly very open to Iranian friendship and influence," said Berman, D-Calif. The hearing was the last of four since Tuesday where Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were delivering their report on political and military progress in Iraq.
Throughout their testimony, Petraeus and Crocker have been unequivocal in their belief that Iran has been fueling fighting, supplying mortars that rain down on the international Green Zone in Baghdad as well as arming so-called "special groups" that were behind recent fighting in Basra.
In response to a question from Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., on Wednesday in an earlier hearing, Crocker said Iran is involved on multiple levels of destabilization.
"As one looks at Iraq's neighbors, the primary problem is with Iran, which, as both the general and I have said, is providing training, equipment, arms, ammunition, and explosives to radical militia elements that they effectively control," Crocker said.
"These are groups that target coalition forces, Iraqi forces, and Iraqi civilians. And it is destabilizing to Iraq," Crocker said.
But Crocker also repeated a refrain he has used earlier in the hearings: that Iran's stable state should, in his opinion, be to ally with Iraq.
"Iran has stated (publicly) that its policy is to support the Iraqi government. And in my view, if you take sort of an objective analysis of the Iran-Iraq relationship, that is what Iran should be doing, supporting the central government, because the truth is no people suffered more from Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad than the Iranian people, with the sole exception of the Iraqis themselves," Crocker said.
Earlier, Petraeus deflected more questions about when more troops will come home from Iraq, but said he is unlikely to boost troop levels again. He said that adding more troops in Iraq would be considered a last resort in part because of the strain it would place on the Army.
He said he would first reallocate existing troops and rely more on Iraqi forces, which are improving in numbers and in their capability.
"That would be a pretty remote thought in my mind," he said of reinstating last year's influx of troops.
Tuesday, and again Wednesday, Petraeus told lawmakers that he has recommended a 45-day hold on troop level changes once the last unit that is part of President Bush's year-long surge comes back in July. The pause will allow military officials to further assess the situation in Iraq, and any new troop deployment recommendations would follow that period.
He and Crocker said the situation there is better than it was when they testified in September, but the gains from the troop surge begun a year ago are "fragile" and "reversible."
The surge sent another 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq. Military officials expect troop levels to hold at about 140,000 when troop drawdowns begun last fall end this summer.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton was unsuccessful in getting Petraeus to give a specific time frame on when further troop reductions might be announced, or to describe what shape they might take.
"At what point do we start to make recommendations to start going into the 15 brigades" that will remain in July, asked Skelton, D-Mo.
"As the conditions are then met, and we look at the security and local governance conditions that allow us to thin out our forces and thereby redeploy additional elements," Petraeus said, adding that they are assessing certain geographic areas where military units can be removed.
Skelton tried again: "Do you have a judgment as to how many brigades of that 15 as you look at those certain areas can be redeployed?"
Petraeus: "Sir, I'm not sure I — again, what we're doing is looking at these different areas. Over time, I think all of them are going to — Again, the question is at what pace that will take place."
In his opening remarks Wednesday, Skelton said the surge hasn't done what it was supposed to do.
"The objective of the surge was to create the political space for the Iraqis to reconcile. Our troops have created that space, but the Iraqis have yet to step up," said Skelton, D-Mo. "There have been some local gains and some legislative accomplishments, but those mostly haven’t been implemented.
"So we don’t know if those will really help or not. And, real reconciliation, based on a sharing of resources, a guarantee of political participation, equal treatment under the law, and protection from violence regardless of sect, simply hasn’t happened."
Skelton also said the fighting in Iraq is leaving the United States vulnerable to other threats.
"When looking at the needs in Afghanistan, the effort in Iraq — however important — is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us," Skelton said. "Iraq is also preventing us from effectively preparing for the next conflict."
The top Republican on the Armed Services Committee disagreed in his opening remarks, was more positive on the outcome of the troop surge so far, but had his own questions.
• Photo Essay: Gen. Petraeus, Ambassador Crocker deliver new Iraq report
Petraeus and Crocker have "made enormous advances and improvements since this last hearing that we held" seven months ago," Rep. Duncan Hunter, D-Calif., said, but said he wants to hear more on the efforts to build Iraq security forces.
"I would hope that today you could give us your unvarnished opinion on the standup of the Iraqi military because in my estimation, a reliable Iraqi military is a key to the United States leaving Iraq in victory," Hunter said.
In his opening statement remarks — which were nearly identical to those from a day before — Petraeus said, "Iraqi Forces have grown significantly since September, and over 540,000 individuals now serve in the Iraqi Security Forces."
But noting a recent outbreak of fighting in the southern port city Basra — where a rapid deployment of Iraqi forces ended up needing U.S. reinforcement — Petraeus said they're not yet where they need to be.
"While improved, Iraqi Security Forces are not yet ready to defend Iraq or maintain security throughout the country on their own," Petraeus said.
He said "Recent operations in Basra highlight improvements in the ability of the Iraqi Security Forces" to move troops and supplies quickly, but "recent operations also underscored the considerable work still to be done in the areas of expeditionary logistics, force enablers, staff development, and command and control."
The White House signaled Wednesday — as Bush has for weeks — that it was likely the president would embrace recommendations of Petraeus and his generals in the field. White House press secretary Dana Perino said it is "within the realm of possibility" that Bush would discuss in his Thursday speech the length of soldiers' tours of duty in Iraq. The administration is expected to announce this week that tours would be reduced from the current 15 months to 12 months.
Perino would not discuss specifics of Bush's remarks, citing the ongoing testimony on Capitol Hill by the United States' top figures in Iraq and a White House meeting Wednesday afternoon between the president and congressional leaders of both parties. But she left no doubt that the shape of the decision is all but done, and essentially ruled out that anything lawmakers say could change his mind.
"I think the president has gotten a lot of advice," she said. "I think he's pretty far down the path of what he's going to say tomorrow."
After appearing before before Skelton's committee, Petraeus and Crocker were to head later in the day they to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, chaired by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.
Unlike Tuesday, Petraeus and Crocker will not face anyone who is likely to become the next U.S. president. Between the two panels, the men were quizzed Tuesday by Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
All three used the platform to reinforce their stance on the war — McCain supportive of continued troop presence, Clinton and Obama looking to bring troops home.
In an interview late Tuesday with National Public Radio, Clinton said she believed Tuesday's testimony "actually supports my position" calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.
"This testimony once again speaks about progress, points to small baby steps that are blown into great advances without much evidence of that," Clinton said, according to NPR. "The sad truth is the point of the surge - which was to give the Iraqi government the space and time to do what it should do — has not created that outcome at all."
Meantime, Senate Democrats are expected to introduce legislation that would force the Iraqi government to spend its own surplus in oil revenues to rebuild the country, sparing U.S. dollars.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said pausing troop reductions would signal to the Iraqis that the United States was committed to the war indefinitely.
"Rather, we need to put continuous and increasing pressure on the Iraqis to settle their political differences, to pay for their own reconstruction with their oil windfalls, and to take the lead in conducting military operations," said Levin, D-Mich.
On Thursday Bush will make a speech about the war, now in its sixth year, and his decision about troop levels.
• Gen. Petraeus' Testimony (.pdf)
• Ambassador Crocker's Senate Armed Services Committee Testimony (.pdf)
• Ambassador Crocker's Senate Foreign Relations Committee Testimony (.pdf)
• Testimony Handout Packet (.pdf)
The Associated Press contributed to this report.