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Top general to back gradual cut

Spring start seen; Petraeus to air frustration at Iraq political steps

When he delivers a much-anticipated report to Congress Monday on the state of the war in Iraq, Army General David Petraeus will recommend a gradual reduction of forces beginning next spring and also declare himself "frustrated with the slow pace of political solutions" in Baghdad.

From his desk at Camp Victory inside the fortified US military headquarters in Baghdad, Petraeus responded by e-mail to questions from the Globe, offering a glimpse inside his command, and his thinking before he arrives in Washington for his testimony.

"Based on the progress our forces are achieving, I expect to be able to recommend that some of our forces will be redeployed without replacement," said Petraeus, the overall commander of coalition forces in Iraq. "That will, over time, reduce the total number of troops in Iraq. The process will take time, but we want to be sure to maintain the security gains that coalition and Iraqi forces have worked so hard to achieve."

The force reduction Petraeus forecast will come as the five additional brigades deployed to Iraq as part of the current "surge" strategy end their tours of duty over the spring and summer, and are not replaced. A brigade consists of 3,500 to 4,500 troops.

"The bottom line is that . . . I do not envision that the US would need to send more troops," he said. "In fact, we are in the process of doing the 'battlefield geometry' to determine the way ahead as the surge of forces inevitably runs its course."

The New York Times quotes administration and military sources today as saying that Petraeus could accept a drawdown of a single brigade in Iraq as early as January. But a senior official close to Petraeus told the Globe last night that the general has been opposed to such an early reduction of forces.

The general, in his comments to the Globe, highlighted the challenges, the failures, and the successes he sees eight months into the surge, which has sought to blunt the insurgency in Iraq and buy breathing room for the Iraqi leadership to govern.

Petraeus said it is clear to him that the additional troops - some 30,000 in all - had enabled the armed forces to stabilize large sections of Baghdad and the country where insurgents had had free rein. The troops added for the surge brought the total force level to 160,000 in Iraq. "We are dealing a significant blow to Al Qaeda and other extremist elements in Iraq. . . . What our troopers have achieved is measurable and important," he said.

Less heartening has been the slow political progress by a government riven by sectarian divisions, even as it tries to bring democracy to a country with a long history of authoritarian rule.

Petraeus, during his confirmation hearings in January, told Congress that there was no possibility of a military victory in Iraq, only a political solution. And by this critical measure, he concedes the surge is faltering.

"There is no question that all of us - Iraqi leaders as well as coalition leaders - are frustrated by the slow pace of political solutions," he said.

But Petraeus, a scholar with a Princeton PhD as well as a military man, also takes a long view of the Iraqi government's inability thus far to tackle such fundamental social and political change.

"It takes time to resolve these issues, just as it took the US time to resolve fundamental issues like civil rights . . . or states rights," he said.

Petraeus, who assumed command in Iraq in February, will be fulfilling an administration promise to brief Congress this month on the progress of the war. His return to Washington comes at a crucial point in the conflict and a definitive moment in his military career.

He went to Iraq as one of the few US commanders with deep credibility on both sides of the political spectrum, and as an authority on the military's evolving counterinsurgency strategy. But next week Petraeus's reputation for candor will run up against the white-hot partisanship in Washington surrounding the war.

The question now is whether the on-the-ground impact of the surge can be sustained as gradual troop reductions begin.

"Wherever the surge was present, security improved for the Iraqi people," said Kevin Ryan, a retired brigadier general and currently a senior fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard University. "That's an undeniable fact. . . . The real question for Petraeus now is what will happen when the forces leave?"

Other observers believe the surge, as the administration implemented it, never had much chance of success. It provided "way too little, way too late," said former US representative Marty Meehan, who visited Baghdad four times since the war began and met with Petraeus there in the early spring.

Meehan, who says he admires Petraeus, said the testimony promises to be a challenging moment for the general.

While conceding he is frustrated by the lack of progress toward a political solution in Iraq, Petraeus noted that there were important political developments "being worked in practice, even if they are not yet codified in law." He said there have been successes in bringing former Ba'athist army officials out of the shadows of the insurgency and into the fold of the Iraqi governing structures and the army that officials are trying to build. He said 5,000 have returned to the army and as many as 20,000 now have civilian jobs.

On the battlefield, he has seen some pathbreaking efforts to marry the use of force with efforts to encourage local governance. He cited his patrols with soldiers in Baqubah and Marines in Ramadi.

THE PETRAEUS INTERVIEW For a transcript of the interview with General David Petraeus, go to boston.com/globe.

"In both of those cities, our troopers, together with our Iraqi partners, conducted some tough operations to root out the Al Qaeda elements and take away their sanctuaries. They quickly followed up the combat operations with comprehensive plans to maintain the security gains they'd made, integrate local citizens into the efforts, and reestablish basic services and governance," he said.

There have also been deeply discouraging moments.

"The damage I saw that was wrought by sectarian violence was far worse than I had expected," he said.

And the loss of American life during his command has been especially hard to bear. The worst moment came with the loss of 14 soldiers in a Blackhawk helicopter crash Aug. 22.

"Every death is tragic, frankly, but our sadness is multiplied when several deaths occur as the result of a single event. . . . We lost 14 soldiers in a split second, [including] 10 troopers from a single unit scheduled to redeploy in just over a month."

At the start of the war in 2003, Petraeus commanded the air assault by the 101st Airborne Division near Mosul, and was credited for securing that city by carrying out robust "hard power" with military force and "soft power" through winning hearts and minds. Petraeus said it has been harder to find that balance during the surge, but that there are some areas of success, particularly in Baqubah.

He said "Al Qaeda had essentially controlled that city" for months until an operation cleared the area of the militants. Almost immediately, he said, the effort shifted gears to the political front.

Rand Beers, the president of the Washington-based National Security Network and a counterterrorism official under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, said that the limited success Petraeus highlights is serving only to delay an inevitable draw down of forces.

Speaking of Petraeus and his reputation as a military leader, Beers said, "He has brought enormous depth of knowledge and a sense of history to the task. But I am not sure that he can be successful."

Petraeus himself isn't certain of success. But he is encouraged by signs that local Iraqi citizens are increasingly seeking an active role in the securing their own neighborhoods.

"Security is increasing," he said. "In the coming months and years supportive citizens, along with Iraqi Security Forces, will be essential in establishing sustainable security across Iraq."

Charles Sennott can be reached at sennott@globe.com.

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