Today’s appearance by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker before the Senate Armed Services Committee has generated a number of interesting exchanges. Joe Lieberman’s observations and questions struck me as particularly apt:
LIEBERMAN: General and Ambassador, thank you for your extraordinary service in the cause of freedom in Iraq. I must say that, as I listen to your testimony, which is encouraging and yet quite realistic, and in my opinion, not overstated — you’ve told us that the strategy associated with the surge is working, progress has been made, but it’s entirely reversible. You’ve been very frank about some of the problems that we still face.
What I’m about to say, with respect to my colleagues who have consistently opposed our presence in Iraq, as I hear the questions and the statements today, it seems to me that there’s a kind of hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq, and most of all, speak of no progress in Iraq.
The fact is, there has been progress in Iraq, thanks to extraordinary effort by the two of you and all those who serve under you on our behalf. I wish we could come to a point where we could have an agreement on the facts that you are presenting to us, the charts you’ve shown, the military progress, the extraordinary drop in ethno-sectarian violence, the drop in civilian deaths, the drop in American deaths, and the very impressive political progress in Iraq since last September.
Hey, let’s be honest about this: The Iraqi political leadership has achieved a lot more political reconciliation and progress since September than the American political leadership has. So we’ve got to give credit for that.
I repeat, I wish we could have an agreement on the facts which you presented. You work for us. I don’t distrust those facts. And I wish we could go from an agreement on those facts to figure out how we can move to more success so we can bring more of our troops home. That’s apparently not going to happen in the near future.
I want to ask you a question about Iran, because both of you have spoken with great seriousness about the continuing Iranian threat. Senator Kennedy asked a question about the Iraqi government initiative in southern Iraq and said there was no Al Qaida there.
As you said, General Petraeus, there is no Al Qaida there, but there are Iranian-backed special forces that, from what you’ve told us today, continue to threaten what’s our real goal in Iraq, which is not just to defeat Al Qaida, it’s to help stand up a self-governing, self- defending Iraqi government. So talk to us about — let me ask you first: Are the Iranians still training and equipping Iraqi extremists who are going back into Iraq and killing American soldiers?
PETRAEUS: That is correct, Senator.
In fact, we have detained individuals. Four of the 16 so-called master trainers, for example, are in our detention facility. You may recall that last year we detained the head of the special groups and also the deputy commander of the Lebanese Hezbollah Department 2,800, which is working with the Iranian Quds Force to train, equip, fund and also direct these special groups.
The special groups’ activities have, in fact, come out in greater relief during the violence of recent weeks. It is they who have the expertise to shoot rockets more accurately, shoot mortars more accurately, and to employ some of the more advanced materiel, the explosively formed projectiles and the like, that have not just killed our soldiers and Iraqi soldiers, but also have been used to assassinate two southern governors in past months and two southern police chiefs.
So they are a serious concern. I believe that this has brought out in greater relief for the Iraqi government as well, because they have conveyed directly to their Iranian interlocutors their concerns about the activities of the Quds Force with the special groups and recognize the very clear threat that they present to security in Iraq.
LIEBERMAN: Is it fair to say that the Iranian-backed special groups in Iraq are responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands — excuse me — hundreds of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians?
PETRAEUS: It certainly is. I do believe that is correct.
Again, some of that also is militia elements who have been — subsequently have been trained by these individuals. But there is no question about the threat that they pose, and, again, about the way that has been revealed more fully in recent weeks.
LIEBERMAN: Ambassador Crocker, picking up on something General Petraeus just said, though we all have questions about the recent Iraqi government initiative under Prime Minister Maliki’s leadership in the south, in Basra, is it not possible that there’s something very encouraging about that initiative, which is that it represents a decision by the Maliki government in Baghdad to not tolerate the Iranian-backed militias essentially running wild and trying to control the south of his country?
CROCKER: Senator, that’s an excellent question. As I look at the Basra operation, I look at it through a political lens, obviously, more than I can a military.
General Petraeus has described some of the military’s perspectives of that. The political ramifications, I think, are distinctly more positive. Because that is exactly the signal that the operation has sent within Iraq and, one would hope, in the region: that this Iraqi government is prepared to go after extremist militia elements, criminal elements of whatever sectarian identity they may be.
I note, for example, that Iraqi security forces are simultaneously engaged now in Basra against Iranian-backed Shia extremists and they’re engaged in Mosul against Al Qaida and its Iraqi supporters. And I think that is important. The reflection of that has been seen in the level of political unity behind the prime minister. It’s as — or more extensive than anything I’ve seen during my year there.
CROCKER: The meeting of the political council of national security on Saturday — and this brings together the president, the two vice presidents, the speaker, the two deputy speakers of Parliament, the prime minister, the deputy prime minister, and the heads of all major parliamentary blocks; unanimously developed a statement, a 15-point statement that included support for the prime minister in these efforts. It called for the disarming and elimination of all militias elements, and it had a strong message warning of outside interference in Iraq’s affairs.
So I think these are highly positive elements that the government can continue to build on as it moves ahead with the other elements of the reconciliation agenda.