The Battle on the Home Front

General Petraeus fails to quiet calls for speeding troop cuts in Iraq

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During a marathon week of pivotal Capitol Hill hearings and the rollout of President Bush's "way forward" in Iraq—the eighth such prime-time address by the president since the U.S. invasion in March 2003—a couple of things were clear: Progress in the violent and deeply divided nation remains heartbreakingly fragile, and mention of "victory" has all but vanished from the lexicon of this war.

The word itself barely came up in the highly anticipated testimony last week—some called it a report card—on developments in Iraq. In two days' worth of grueling sessions before Congress, Gen. David Petraeus, commander of troops in Iraq, never said "victory," and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker referred to it twice. Once, really, as it was a repeat of the reading aloud of his prepared statement. The prospect was raised tentatively in a context that bore closer resemblance to a warning than a lofty goal. "There will be no single moment at which we can claim victory," Crocker said. "Any turning point will likely only be recognized in retrospect."

Last week seemed to bear out just how elusive those turning points can be. One of the most encouraging developments has been what is widely called the "Anbar awakening," in which sheiks are teaming up with U.S. military forces to fight the Sunni terrorist group known as al Qaeda in Iraq. But on the eve of Bush's televised address came news that a key Sunni leader, who had shaken hands with the president during a surprise visit to Anbar just 10 days earlier, had—like his father before him—been assassinated. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, called the murder of the sheik who had become the face of the awakening, Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, a "tragic loss" that would serve only to steel U.S. resolve.

The question with which Congress will continue to grapple revolves around whether something resembling U.S. success in Iraq is ultimately a product of American resolve. And when, political leaders were asking last week, do we know we've seen our commitment through? "I guess the bigger question is, is the mission complete when [Iraqi security forces] can take over the fight? If we haven't gotten some western-style democracy imposed in terms of a political solution there, are we done?" wondered Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican, during last week's Senate Armed Services Committee hearings. "I mean, is that where...we say, 'Mission Accomplished'?"

The president also made "success" a condition of return without defining precisely what success is. The new "way forward" plan for U.S. troops in Iraq, who currently number some 168,000, is to "return on success." Bush explained it this way in his address to the nation: "The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home."

In the Democratic response, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island said such a plan paved the way for an "endless and unlimited military presence in Iraq." Reed, a West Point graduate, has proposed a measure that would withdraw most combat troops by spring but still leave a sizable force in Iraq to provide training and security. Democrats do not currently have the votes to compel an immediate troop withdrawal.

Come together. Bush is clearly sensitive to calls for troop reductions, which come from both sides of the political aisle. Earlier this month, Sen. John Warner, the respected Virginia Republican, asked for a symbolic reduction in troops before the new year. And Petraeus said that 5,700 marines will come home by Christmas, with more to follow. The president said this plan "makes it possible, for the first time in years, for people who have been on opposite sides of this difficult debate to come together."

That will not be happening anytime soon. Democrats point out that the touted troop reductions were already a foregone conclusion, since the U.S. military has said repeatedly that it cannot sustain the strains of the surge past next spring. What's more, they add, the projected troop numbers are merely a return to substantial presurge levels. "We'll be back to where we started from," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.