by Frank James
Sen. John McCain was the first of the remaining three presidential candidates to get a crack at Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker today, as the highest ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
McCain's opening statement distilled points he's made on the campaign trail in recent weeks and months, mainly that there's been progress in the security situation in Iraq and that it would be a critical strategic mistake for the U.S. to withdraw its forces from Iraq as his Democratic rivals, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have advocated.
In his questions to Petraeus and Crocker, McCain sounded very much like a commander-in-chief asking his top field commander for a battlefield assessment. That likely was no accident on McCain's part.
But unlike some of his fellow Republicans, McCain also was clearly critical of problems in Iraq. McCain has campaigned heavily on having opposed many aspects of how the Bush Administration conducted the war before the U.S. security surge began last year. His questions today suggested he planned to keep a certain distance from President Bush on Iraq.
For instance, McCain picked up on a line of questioning stated by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin's who asked Petraeus about reports that the recent Basra violence triggered by the Iraqi government's assault on Shiite forces there was a precipitous action by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki which caught U.S. officials by surprise.
The senator from Arizona, the winner of the Republican presidential primaries, also asked about the failure of 1,000 of the Iraqi security forces to persevere in that fighting; about al Qaeda in Iraq, and recent attacks on the Green Zone, home to the U.S. embassy.
Here's McCain's exchange with Petraeus and Crocker.
SEN. MCCAIN: General Petraeus, again, news reports said that Prime Minister Maliki only informed you shortly before the operation -- is that correct -- in Basra?
GEN. PETRAEUS: It is, Senator. We had a heads-up in a Friday night meeting where we in fact were planning to resource operations in Basra on a longer-term basis. The following Saturday we had a meeting during which he laid out the plan that he was going to deploy forces,laid out the objectives, the lines of operations that he was going to operate along, and stated that he was moving there on Friday himself -- or on Monday himself.
SEN. MCCAIN: And it was not something that you had recommended.
GEN. PETRAEUS: It was not something I recommended, no, sir.
SEN. MCCAIN: News reports indicate that over a thousand Iraqi army and police deserted or underperformed during that operation. This is four months after Basra achieved provincial Iraqi control, meaning that all provincial security had been transferred to Iraqi security forces. What's the lesson that we're to draw from that, that a thousand Iraqi army and police deserted or underperformed?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, one lesson, Senator, is that relatively new forces -- what happened was in one case a brigade that literally had just come out of unit set fielding was pressed into operation. The other lesson is a recurring one, and that is the difficulty of local police operating in areas where there is serious intimidation of themselves and of their families.
SEN. MCCAIN: Suffice to say, it was a disappointment.
GEN. PETRAEUS: It was, although it is not over yet, Senator. In fact, subsequent to the early days, they then took control of the security at the different ports. They continued to carry out targeted raids. The operation is still very much ongoing and it is by no means over.
SEN. MCCAIN: The Green Zone has been attacked in ways that it has not been for a long time, and most of that is coming from elements that leave Sadr City or from Sadr City itself. Is that correct?
GEN. PETRAEUS: That's correct, Senator.
SEN. MCCAIN: And what are we going to do about that?
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, we have already taken control of the area that was the principal launching point for a number of the 107-millimeter rockets into Baghdad and have secured that area. Beyond that -- again, Iraqi security forces are going to have to come to grips both politically as well as militarily with the issue of the militia and more importantly the special groups.
SEN. MCCAIN: What do you make of Sadr's declaration of a quote, "cease-fire?"
GEN. PETRAEUS: Well, as with the cease-fire that was proclaimed in the wake of the militia violence in Karbala in August of last year, it is both to avoid further damage to the image of the Sadr movement, which of course is supposed to care for the downtrodden and has a heavy -- obviously, is a religiously inspired movement, but which has been hijacked in some cases by militias. And in fact, other elements have used it to cloak their activities as well.
If I could, Senator, also point out that along with the operations in Basra there were operations in a number of other provinces in southern Iraq, all precipitated by this outbreak in militia violence. Karbala, Najaf, Qadisiyah, Hillah, Wasat, Dhi Qar and Muthanna -- the Iraqi security forces actually did well, in some cases, did very well and maintained security. The same is true in Baghdad, although again, even there the performance was uneven in some cases.
SEN. MCCAIN: There are numerous threats to security in Iraq and the future of Iraq. Do you still view al Qaeda in Iraq as a major threat?
GEN. PETRAEUS: It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, 15 months ago.
SEN. MCCAIN: Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shi'ites, all overall, or Sunnis or anybody else.
GEN. PETRAEUS: No. No, sir.
SEN. MCCAIN: Al Qaeda continues to try to assert themselves in Mosul, is that correct?
GEN. PETRAEUS: It is, Senator. As you saw on the chart, the area of operation of al Qaeda has been greatly reduced in terms of controlling areas that it controlled as a little as a year and a half ago. But clearly, Mosul and Nineveh province are areas that al Qaeda
is very much trying to hold on to. All roads lead through the traditional capital of the north.
SEN. MCCAIN: They continue to be a significant threat.
GEN. PETRAEUS: They do. Yes, sir.
SEN. MCCAIN: Ambassador Crocker, let's -- on your statement, you talked about a long-term relationship with Iraq, such as a security arrangement, diplomatic, et cetera, economic that we have with some 80 countries. You envision this after we succeed in this conflict. Is that correct? Or would you talk a little bit about that, elaborate a little more.
AMB. CROCKER: Yes, sir. I would actually envision it as helping us to succeed in the conflict. The effort will have two elements. One will be a status of forces agreement. That will be, as I said, approximately like what we have with 80 other countries. It will have some unique aspects to give our forces the authorities to continue operations after the end of 2008.
There will also be a broad strategic framework agreement first called for by the Iraqi leadership last August and then reflected in the declaration of principles that Prime Minister Maliki and President Bush signed in November. This will cover, in addition to security, the political, the economic, the cultural -- the whole spectrum of our relations.
SEN. MCCAIN: Thank you.
Finally, General Petraeus, Mosul continue to be a battle. Is that correct?
GEN. PETRAEUS: It does, Senator.
SEN. MCCAIN: And who are the major adversaries in Mosul? It's a mixed population.
GEN. PETRAEUS: The major adversaries are al Qaeda Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna, Jaish al-Islami, and some related Sunni extremist organizations that all are allies of al Qaeda Iraq.
SEN. MCCAIN: It was once said that al Qaeda cannot succeed without control of Baghdad, and they can't survive without control of Mosul. Is that an oversimplification?
GEN. PETRAEUS: A little bit, but not completely, sir. Again, it would be a significant blow to al Qaeda. And in fact, the degree to which they're fighting reflects how much they want to retain the amount of presence that they have in the greater Mosul area.
SEN. MCCAIN: Finally, I hope in response, because my time has expired, we could talk a little bit more about the Iranian threat, particularly their stepped up support of various elements that are Shi'ite extremists in Iraq, particularly the role they played in Basra as well as the southern part of the country.