Even before the House version gets underway on Wednesday, it’s clear that Day One of the Petraeus-Crocker show is all about political theater – starring a four-star general with a chest full of medals and political ambition, and a soft-spoken self-deprecating ambassador, both straight out of central casting. But this is political theater – with very clear messages.

  • Iran is the problem in Iraq
  • The “surge” stopped the violence in Iraq
  • Keep the troops in Iraq
  • Support the $110 billion supplemental funding bill for the Iraq War

Iran is the Problem in Iraq
The single most important purpose of the Petraeus-Crocker hearing was to ratchet up tensions with Iran. Much of Petraeus’ opening statement, and a major theme of both witnesses’ answers to senators’ questions, had to do with the danger of Iran’s “malign intentions” in Iraq. One of the last line’s of Petraeus’ opening salvo was “none of us earlier this year appreciated the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraq, something about which we and Iraq’s leaders all now have greater concern.”

The political overview was the claim that virtually all of the current problems in Iraq come back to the dangerous role of Iran – the U.S. occupation, apparently, has nothing to do with the violence and instability across Iraq. Specifically, there was a strong effort to blame Iran for training and arming the so-called “special groups” within the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shi’a cleric Moqtada al Sadr. At a moment when Sadr’s influence is increasing, and his movement represents the most powerful anti-occupation force in Iraq, there is some recognition in Washington that it may be necessary to co-opt Sadr at some point, rather than isolating or attacking him directly. As a result, the claim is being made that Iraq is dangerous arming or backing only the “special groups” or “rogue elements” within Sadr’s movement, not Sadr himself. This of course flies in the face of the longstanding links between Sadr and Iran (he has spent much of the last year in the Iranian city of Qom studying Islamic theology).

But more importantly, it represents a complete distortion of the actual role Iran is currently playing inside Iraq. Neither Petraeus nor Crocker, nor any senator asking questions, mentioned anything about Iran’s widely known role in facilitating the ceasefire between al Sadr’s militia and the U.S. and Iraqi military forces arrayed against it during the recent fighting in Basra. Crocker, and several senators, referred a willingness to accept “normal” relations between Iran and Iraq, but none acknowledged the strength and normality of the relationship that already exists today.

The Petraeus-Crocker testimony added fuel to an existing escalation of anti-Iran mobilization in Washington. The hearing takes place less than a month after the resignation of former CentCom chief Admiral William Fallon, who left the U.S. military largely because of disagreements with Bush administration policies in Iraq and especially its threats towards Iran. The dangerous possibility of a U.S. military strike against Iran cannot be ruled out, and must remain the target of mobilized opposition.

The “Surge” Stopped the Violence in Iraq
Both Petraeus and Crocker claimed repeatedly that the reduction of violence in Iraq from mid-2007 was solely the result of the “surge” of 30,000 additional U.S. troops. While certainly an additional 30,000 armed soldiers in an occupying army has some impact on suppressing violence in certain areas, often forcing the violence from one location to another, it is equally clear that other conditions had far more impact.

The surge began in early 2007. From June-July 2007 through November violence dropped dramatically. Since then the levels have not gone down, but largely remained flat. Both Crocker and Petraeus essentially claimed the surge was responsible for anything good that happened in Iraq during that period. According to Petraeus, “the level of security incidents has decreased significantly since the start of the surge of offensive operations in mid-June…”

Petraeus, Crocker and all the senators ignored the three major factors that actually played a much greater role in reducing the violence. First, the unilaterally-declared ceasefire by al Sadr’s Mahdi Army; that action took the largest and most powerful anti-occupation force largely out of the military business. Second, the creation of the Sunni “awakening councils,” in which about 80,000 former anti-U.S. militia members (from al-Qaeda in Iraq to a variety of largely Sunni tribal and other forces who had once fought the U.S. and the U.S.-backed Iraqi government) were bought off – armed, paid and supported by the U.S. in new, and for the moment pro-U.S., militias. Petraeus actually admitted in his testimony that “the most significant development in the past six months like has been the increasing emergence of tribes and local citizens rejecting al-Qaeda and other extremists.” But there was no acknowledgment of how removing 80,000 militia members from the anti-U.S. fight just might have some impact on reducing violence. Third, and most horrific, is the shocking reality that much violence ended because it had served its purpose. Much of the sectarian violence that wracked Iraq through 2005 and 2006 was aimed at destroying the heterogeneous mix of people in Baghdad neighborhoods and other cities, and replacing that diverse cosmopolitanism with sectarian-defined isolation. That has, to a shocking degree, been accomplished – so much of Baghdad’s population now lives behind 12-foot high cement walls in all-Sunni or all-Shi’a or other forcibly homogenous communities. With that accomplished, much of the raison d’étre of the violence disappeared.

Keep the Troops in Iraq

A key goal in the hearing was for Petraeus to justify the White House’s call for a rapid end to the current small-scale “draw-down” of troops, and instead to support the permanent occupation of Iraq. Petraeus called for an indefinite halt to troop reductions after July 2008, at which time troop levels will be about 140,000 – the same as “pre-surge” levels. At that point, he said, the withdrawal of troops should stop. It would be, he said, “premature to make recommendations on the pace of such reductions” beyond July, and indeed he would not even consider further reductions until March 2009.

Instead, after July there should be a 45-day period to “evaluate & consolidate,” THEN an indefinite “process of reassessment,” THEN conditions would be assessed “over time.” The “premature draw-down” equals “devastating consequences” framework was a constant drumbeat during the hearings, aimed primarily at the Democratic presidential candidates, both of whom claim to support troop withdrawals. Although both Clinton’s and Obama’s plans call only for withdrawing combat troops – leaving behind 30,000 to 75,000 training, guarding, counter-terrorism and other troops – the accusation of dangerous consequences was constant.

Petraeus quoted a classified Defense Intelligence Agency report (which he said he had “summarized in unclassified fashion” – so no one could challenge him) stating that rapid troop withdrawal would lead to “dangerous results, including high risk of disintegration of the Iraq Security Forces; rapid deterioration of local security initiatives; al-Qaeda-Iraq regaining lost ground and freedom of maneuver; marked increase in violence and further ethno-sectarian displacement and refugee flows; alliances of convenience by Iraqi groups with internal and external forces to gain advantages over their rivals; and exacerbation of already challenging regional dynamics, especially with respect to Iran.”

Support the $110 billion supplemental funding bill
The Democratic majority in congress has made clear they have no intention of challenging the next supplemental funding bill for the war. But both Petraeus and Crocker made sure to express fawning gratitude to the congress that had authorized unlimited funds for the Iraq War, urging that it continue. It was hardly needed.

Their Key Recommendations

  • No troop withdrawals after July 2008, leaving 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.
  • No change in the U.S. mission in Iraq.
  • The announcement that the current 15-month Iraq deployments would be shortened to 12 months was not mentioned; presumably it was left to Bush for his Thursday night “address to the nation.”

Two interesting questions
There was little serious follow-up from any Senator, with the exception of Republican Senator George Voinovich of Ohio, the only one who showed any anger or emotion in response to the horrors of the war: “I think Osama bin Laden is sitting back right now looking at this thing [and saying] in effect, We’re kinda bankrupting this country. We are eating our seed corn. We’ve got some really big problems today, and we are in a recession, and God only knows how long we’re gonna be in it.”

Barack Obama asked one good question, but undermined his position with his own refusal to call for complete withdrawal of troops.

Obama asked Crocker, “if we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without U.S. troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success? It’s obviously not perfect. There’s still violence, there’s still some traces of Al Qaeda, Iran has influence more than we would like. But if we had the current status quo, and yet our troops had been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success? Would that meet our criteria, or would that not be good enough and we’d have to devote even more resources to it?”

Crocker’s answer: “Senator, I can’t imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.”
Obama’s reply: “No, no, that wasn’t the question. I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint. That’s what all of us have been trying to get to. And, see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high, no traces of Al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi- sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don’t like, then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years. If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there’s not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there’s still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an Al Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven’t been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.”

Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where she directs the New Internationalism project. Her books include Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and more recently Ending the Iraq War: A Primer.

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