U.S. Iraq troop levels could be cut by next summer: Petraeus

Achieving security objectives in Iraq will be neither quick nor easy, but U.S. forces could be reduced to pre-surge levels by next summer, the top American general in Iraq said Monday.

Achieving critical security objectives in Iraq will be "neither quick nor easy," but U.S. forces could be reduced to pre-surge levels by next summer, the top American general in Iraq said Monday.

Gen. David Petraeus testifies before a joint congressional committee on Monday. ((Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press))

"The military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," Gen. David Petraeus said in his greatly anticipated appearance before a joint congressional committee in Washington.

"I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level … by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve."

The general'stestimony was halted numerous times as security officers removed vocal protesters from the gallery.

Petraeustold thecommitteethat a unit of about 2,000 Marines will depart Iraq later this month andbe followed in mid-December with the departure of an army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers.

A protester is removed on Capitol Hill in Washington on Monday. ((Gerald Herbert/Associated Press))

After that, another four brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008, he said. That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq, roughly the number last winter when U.S. President George W.Bush decided to dispatch additional forces.

Petraeussaid the surge of 30,000 extratroops has dealt significant blows toal-Qaeda in Iraq and Sunni extremists, as well as disrupted Shia militias and brought down the number ofviolent deaths across the country.

Butheadded both civilian deaths and sectarian violence in Iraq "are still at troubling levels."

Several protesters greeted Petraeus' arrival at the committee room by shouting, "Tell the truth, general," before DemocraticRep. Ike Skelton,chairman of the armed services committee,ordered themremoved.

In his lengthy opening remarks, Skelton hailed Petraeus as "almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq," but promplty added, "he's the right person three years too late and 250,000 troops short."

He alsopraised the work ofthe troops on the ground, but slammed the Iraqi government for failing to follow up on the troops'sacrifices with concrete action.

"While our troops are holding back the opposing team to let them get a touchdown, the Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball," he said.

Democrats push for troop withdrawals

Petraeus' testimony came at a pivotal moment in the war, with the Democratic-controlled Congress pressing for troop withdrawals and the Bush administration hoping to prevent wholesale Republican defections.

"The administration's myopic policies in Iraq have created a fiasco,"added Rep. Tom Lantos, also a Democrat and chairman of the foreign affairs committee, as a stoic Petraeus looked on from the witness stand.

"We cannot take any of the administration's assertions on Iraq anymore at face value. With all due respect to you, I must say I don't buy it."

Republican members,however,heaped praise on the four-star general andaccused Democratsofsupporting a personal attack by activist, which rannewspaper and internet adson Monday with the headline: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"

"I trust your reporting and that of the troops on the ground regarding the levels of sectarian violence over those who seek to discredit that information to justify an immediate withdrawal," Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said in her opening remarks,in which she called the ads "outrageous" and "deplorable."

The testimony of Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, is expected to continue through Tuesday — the sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.

During his testimony, Crocker conceded that he could not "guarantee success,"but believes a secure, sustainable and democratic Iraq is attainable.

"Our currrent course is hard; the alternatives are far worse," Crocker told the committee. "An Iraq that falls into chaos or civil war will cause human suffering that falls well beyond what has been already seen within its borders."

BothPetraeus and CrockercitedAnbar provincewest of Baghdad as an example of Iraqis turning againstmilitants andoverall violence decreasing. But observers have questioned whether suchdevelopments are related to the surge, which was initially designedto bolster securitywithin the Iraqi capital.

"In Anbar province, we're effectively paying tribal sheiks and militia leaders millions of dollars not to shoot at us," retiredU.S. Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, now a military and political analyst in Washington, told CBC News on Monday.

"If you want to characterize that as success, then I suppose almost anything you say is successful."

Thetestimony came on the same day as nine U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq, including eight who died in vehicle accidents that also claimed the lives of two detainees, the military said.

Also Monday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told his country's legislators that Iraqi forces were not ready to take over security from the U.S. military across the country.

"There have been tangible improvements in security in the recent period in Baghdad and the provinces but it is not enough," he told parliament.

Iraqis gather in a restaurant in the Shia Muslim enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad to watch the televised hearing by U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus on Monday. ((Karim Kadim/Associated Press))

"Despite the security improvement, we still need more efforts and time in order for our armed forces to be able to take over security in all Iraqi provinces from the multinational forces that helped us in a great way in fighting terrorism and outlaws."

Last week, an independent report on Iraq by the Government Accountability Officechallenged Bush's assessment of the war, findingthe Iraqi governmenthas not met 11 of its 18 political and security goals.

The goals met include establishing joint security stations in Baghdad, ensuring minority rights in the Iraqi legislature and creating support committees for the Baghdad security plan, the GAO said.

Petraeusand Crocker'stestimony sets the stage for an announcement by Bush later in the week about how hewill proceed in Iraq in the face of growing discomfort with the war in the Democrat-dominated Congress.

With files from the Associated Press