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Petraeus Shifts Sharply On Basra, Aligns With White House Spin

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Perhaps sensing that his testimony on Tuesday was undermining the official White House version of events in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus today offered a dramatically different interpretation of the recent violent unrest in Basra.

In this morning's hearings before the House Armed Services Committee, Chairman Ike Skelton asked Petraeus to give him some sort of sign that the nascent Iraqi government was within sight of being some sort of functioning body. Petraeus made an effort to assure Skelton that this was the case, and cited Prime Minister Maliki's actions in Basra as a clear sign:

PETRAEUS: First of all, Mr. Chairman I would point out that they want to do that as much as we do. Indeed, they are under -- they put themselves under enormous personal pressure, and collective pressure, from various political elements in Iraq, to increasingly exercise their sovereignty. In fact that's exactly what Prime Minister Maliki did, of course, when he decided that as the Constitutional Commander in Chief of the armed forces of Iraq to deploy forces on short notice to Basra...

Ahh, yes. Springtime in Basra. The recent armed conflicts there, paced by the powerful Sadrist faction, are the rock in the road that Petraeus and Crocker have had to get around since these hearings began, as the ill-timed flare-ups have provided ample evidence that the "surge" strategy may not be working as either a security measure or a means to sectarian reconciliation. The Bush administration has little choice but to spin every dire crisis as a sign of evident success, so Petraeus offers an argument that Maliki's response to Basra was evidence that the government is essentially functional. Petraeus would later return to this theme:

PETRAEUS: So again this is a fairly courageous decision, a fairly sudden decision, is one came after some months of preparing a more deliberate approach, and is still very much playing out, it is far too soon to say that of Basra has succeeded or has failed either. It is safe to say that Basra is going to continue for months actually and it is a tough nut to crack but the fact is that the Prime Minister has taken it on and his forces are grappling with that particular issue.

So, while Basra remains a challenge, the good news is that the Maliki government acted "courageously" after "deliberate" preparations. All of which sounds hopeful, or, at least it would, were it not for the fact that Petraeus spent the whole day suggesting precisely the opposite.

From his opening testimony:

PETRAEUS: The Iraqi security forces have continued to develop since September, and we have transferred responsibilities to Iraqi forces as their capabilities and the conditions on the ground have permitted. Currently, as this chart shows, half of Iraq's 18 provinces are under provincial Iraqi control. Many of these provinces, not just the successful ones in the Kurdish regional government area but also a number of southern provinces, have done well.

Challenges have emerged in some other, including of course Basra.

Also, from his opening testimony:

PETRAEUS: While improved Iraqi security forces are not yet ready to defend Iraq or maintain security throughout the country on their own, recent operations in Basra highlight improvements in the ability of the Iraqi security forces to deploy substantial numbers of units, supplies and replacements on very short notice. They certainly could not have deployed a division's worth of army and police units on such short notice a year ago.

On the other hand, the recent operations also underscored the considerable work still to be done in the area of logistics, force enablers, staff development, and command and control.

Petraeus, questioned by Senator Levin:

LEVIN: Next question: General, an April 3rd article in the New York Times said that before the Iraqi government's assault on the Mahdi Army in Basra, you counseled Prime Minister Maliki, quote, "We made a lot of gains in the past six to nine months that you'll be putting at risk." The article also states that you advised him not to rush into a fight without carefully sizing up the situation and making adequate preparations. Now, did he follow your advice?

PETRAEUS: Sir, he laid out a plan that would, in fact, incorporate that advice. And...

LEVIN: All right. He followed your advice, then.

PETRAEUS: And once the forces got into Basra, they ended up going into action more quickly than was anticipated.

LEVIN: Would you say that Maliki followed your advice?

PETRAEUS: I would not. No, sir.

LEVIN: In your judgment, was the Iraqi government operation in Basra properly and carefully planned? And were the preparations adequate? In your professional judgment, was the Iraqi government operation in Basra properly and carefully planned and were the preparations adequate?

PETRAEUS: Sir, there's no question but that it could have been better planned and that the preparations could have been better. And we have already done initial after-action reviews on that in fact, there and also in Baghdad.

LEVIN: I understand the after -- the report that came after. But I wonder if we could get a direct answer to your question -- to my question. Could you give me a direct answer? In your judgment, was the Iraqi government operation in Basra properly and carefully planned and were the preparations adequate? Could you give me a direct answer?

PETRAEUS: Sir, the answer is, again, it could have been much better planned. It was not adequately planned or prepared.

Questioned by Senator Susan Collins:

COLLINS: Success always seems to be just around the corner when it comes to training and equipping of Iraqi forces. Yet when put to the test, the Iraqi forces have performed very unevenly, and it's very disturbing to me to read the press reports that more than a thousand Iraqi soldiers refused to fight, fled or abandoned their positions during the battle in Basra.

Ultimately, as the ambassador has said this morning, the fate of Iraq is up to the Iraqi people. My concern is, as long as we continue to take the lead in combat operations rather than transitioning to more limited missions, the Iraqis are never going to step up to the plate and fight for their country.

So my question to you is, why should American troops continue to take the lead in combat operations at this point, after years of training and equipping the Iraqi forces, after spending tens of billions of dollars training and equipping of Iraqi forces?

PETRAEUS: Well, first of all, Senator, in Basra we did not take the lead. Basra is a province that is under Iraqi control. Sovereign Iraqi prime minister made a decision to confront a challenge. It was not just a political challenge. This is militia, gang, criminals who were threatening the population. And then deployed forces very rapidly; frankly, more rapidly than we thought they could deploy. Over the course of a week deployed the combat elements of a division.

And then they moved very rapidly into combat operations. Again, too rapidly, most likely, without setting all the proper conditions and so forth.

So, to review: this morning, the Basra operation is sold as the clearest sign that Representative Skelton's "training wheels" are coming off, even though one day earlier, the same mission led Petraeus to admit that the "hand" of the United States had to "remain on the bicycle seat." With this discrepancy, it's hard to say how far along the Iraqis are on their bike riding. One thing is certain, though: in General Petraeus, the Bush administration clearly have a highly effective derailleur.