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As Petraeus Urges Delay of Troop Withdrawal, a Debate on Iraq and Iran’s Role in the War

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The top US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has recommended a suspension of troop withdrawals from Iraq after July. His recommendation would leave just under 140,000 American troops in Iraq well into the fall, more troops deployed in Iraq than before the so-called “surge.” Petraeus testified before two Senate committees on Tuesday alongside Ambassador Ryan Crocker. We play highlights of the hearing and host a debate with Arun Gupta of The Indypendent, Eli Lake of the New York Sun and Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The top US military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, has recommended a suspension of troop withdrawals from Iraq after July to protect what he calls gains of the so-called “surge.” Petraeus testified before two Senate committees on Tuesday alongside Ambassador Ryan Crocker. He told lawmakers the security situation in Iraq has improved since last year’s buildup of troops but emphasized the gains are “fragile and reversible.”

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: As in September, my recommendations are informed by operational and strategic considerations. The operational considerations include recognition that the military surge has achieved progress, but that that progress is reversible; Iraqi security forces have strengthened their capabilities, but still must grow further; the provincial elections in the fall, refugee returns, detainee releases, and efforts to resolve provincial boundary disputes and Article 140 issues will be very challenging; the transition of Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi Security Forces or other pursuits will require time and careful monitoring; withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year; and performing the necessary tasks in Iraq will require sizable conventional forces, as well as Special Operations forces and adviser teams.

    The strategic considerations include recognition that the strain on the US military, especially on its ground forces, has been considerable; a number of the security challenges inside Iraq are also related to significant regional and global threats; a failed state in Iraq would pose serious consequences for the greater fight against al-Qaeda, for regional stability, for the already existing humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and for the efforts to counter-malign Iranian influence.

    After weighing these factors, I recommended to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown of the surge combat forces and that upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a forty-five-day period of consolidation and evaluation. At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and over time determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions. This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit.

    This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable. However, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still-fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.

AMY GOODMAN: General Petraeus, in his opening statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee. His recommendation would leave just under 140,000 American troops in Iraq well into the fall. That’s more troops deployed in Iraq than before the so-called “surge.” At the hearings, Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and both Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, had a chance to question Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.

McCain was the first of the three to speak. In his opening statement, he said that calls for a rapid withdrawal are reckless and irresponsible. As he spoke, he was interrupted by a protester who stood up holding a banner with the words “There is no military solution.”

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Should the United States instead choose to withdraw from Iraq before adequate security is established, we will exchange for this victory a defeat that is terrible and long-lasting. Al-Qaeda in Iraq would proclaim victory and increase its efforts to provoke sectarian tensions, pushing for a full-scale civil war that could descend into genocide and destabilize the Middle East. Iraq would become a failed state. It could become a haven for terrorists to train and plan their operations. Iranian influence would increase substantially in Iraq and encourage other countries to seek accommodation with Tehran at the expense of our interests.

    An American failure would almost certainly require us to return to Iraq or draw us into a wider and far, far costlier war. If, on the other hand, we and the Iraqis are able to build on the opportunity provided by recent successes, we have the chance to leave in Iraq a force for stability and freedom, not conflict and chaos. In doing so, we will —

    PROTESTER: [inaudible]

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: We’re going to ask you, please, to sit down. No more demonstrations, or if there is another one, we’re going to have to ask our Capitol Police to remove any demonstrations.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I have had this experience previously, Mr. Chairman.

    If, on the other hand, we and the Iraqis are able to build on the opportunity provided by recent successes, we have the chance to leave in Iraq a force for stability and freedom, not conflict and chaos. In doing so, we will ensure that the terrible price we have paid in the war, a price that has made all of us sick at heart, has not been paid in vain.

AMY GOODMAN: Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain. Carl Levin, the Chair of the Armed Services Committee, was the first of the day to question General David Petraeus. During their exchange, another protester stood up and shouted “Bring them home” before being evicted by security. This is General Petraeus defending his call for a suspension of troop withdrawals.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: What I stated was a forty-five day period for consolidation and evaluation as to examine the situation on the ground, do the battlefield geometry, consult with Ambassador Crocker on what might be called the political-military calculus, and then conduct the assessments. And when the assessment is at a point that the conditions are met to recommend reduction of forces, then that’s what we would do. So the bottom line, sir, is that it’s a — this period after which we do the assessments and as the conditions are met for further reductions, then we make those recommendations.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Now, if — do you have any estimate at all as to how long that — those two — that second period is going to take? Are you giving us any idea as to how long that will take? You say “over time.”

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, if —-

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Could that be a month?


    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Could that be two months?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, it could be less than that. It could be —-

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Could it be more than that?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It could be more than that.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Alright.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Again, it’s when the conditions are met that we can make a recommendation for further reductions.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Could it be three months?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, again, at the end of the period of consolidation and evaluation, it could be right then, or it could be longer. Again, it is one -—

    PROTESTER: Bring them home! Bring them home! Bring them home!

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: If you could please —-

    PROTESTER: Bring them home!

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: We’re asking -— we’re asking the audience —-

    PROTESTER: Bring them home!

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: If you could bring the gentleman -—

    PROTESTER: Bring them home!

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: I’m afraid we’re going to have to ask him to leave.

    PROTESTER: Bring them home! Bring them home!

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: General —-

    PROTESTER: Bring them home! Bring them home!

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: General, we’re going to ask you this question again. Could it be as long as three months?

    PROTESTER: Bring them home!

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, it could be.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: OK, that’s all I’m asking.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It is when the conditions are met.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: I understand, but I’m just asking you a direct question. Could that be as long as three months?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: It could be, sir.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Could it be as long as four months?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, it is when the conditions are met, again.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Now, next question: if all goes well, if all goes well, what would be the approximate number of our troops there at the end of the year? Let’s assume conditions permitted things to move quickly. What, in your estimate, would be the approximate number of American troops there at the end of the year? Can you give us a -— just say if you can’t give us an estimate?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Sir, I can’t —-

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: Alright.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: —- can’t give you an estimate on that.

    SEN. CARL LEVIN: You’re not going to give us an estimate on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Later in the day, it was Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s turn to be in the spotlight. She began by calling for an orderly process of withdrawal from Iraq.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: The administration and supporters of the administration’s policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy. You know, the lack of political progress over the last six months and the recent conflict in Basra reflect how tenuous the situation in Iraq really is. And for the past five years we have continually heard from the administration that things are getting better, that we’re about to turn a corner, that there is finally a resolution in sight. Yet each time, the Iraqi leaders fail to deliver. I think it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront America.

AMY GOODMAN: Clinton went on to question General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. She pressed Crocker on the continued authority of US troops to conduct military operations in Iraq.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: With respect to our long-term challenges, Ambassador Crocker, the administration has announced that it will negotiate an agreement with the government of Iraq by the end of July that would provide the legal authorities for US troops to continue to conduct operations in Iraq. Let me ask you, do you anticipate that the Iraqi government would submit such an agreement to the Iraqi parliament for ratification?

    AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: The Iraqi government has indicated it will bring the agreement to the council of representatives. At this point, it’s not clear, at least to me, whether that will be for a formal vote or whether they will repeat the process they used in November with the Declaration of Principles, in which it was simply read to the members of the parliament.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Does the administration plan to submit this agreement to our congress?

    AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: At this point, Senator, we do not anticipate that the agreements will have within them any elements that would require the advise-and-consent procedure. We intend to negotiate this as an executive agreement.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON: Well, Ambassador Crocker, it seems odd, I think, to Americans who are being asked to commit for an indefinite period of time the lives of our young men and women in uniform, the civilian employees whom you rightly referenced and thanked, as well as billions of dollars of additional taxpayer dollars, if the Iraqi parliament may have a chance to consider this agreement that the United States Congress would not.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Obama also had an opportunity to question General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker later Tuesday afternoon, when they testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He called for a timetable for withdrawal and talks with Iran while questioning Ambassador Crocker.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: I think what happened in Basra is an example of Shia versus Shia jockeying for power that underscores how complicated the political situation is there and how we still have to continue to work vigorously to resolve it. I believe that we are more likely to resolve it, in your own words, Ambassador, if we are applying increased pressure in a measured way. I think that increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind — and this is where we disagree — includes a timetable for withdrawal. Nobody’s asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure and a diplomatic surge that includes Iran, because if Maliki can tolerate as normal neighbor-to-neighbor relations in Iran, then we should be talking to them, as well. I do not believe we’re going to be able to stabilize the situation without them.

    If we were able to have the status quo in Iraq right now without US troops, would that be a sufficient definition of success? It’s obviously not perfect. There’s still violence. There’s still some traces of al-Qaeda. Iran has influence more than we would like. But if we had the current status quo, and yet our troops had been drawn down to 30,000, would we consider that a success? Would that meet our criteria, or would that not be good enough, and we’d have to devote even more resources to it?

    AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: Senator, I can’t imagine the current status quo being sustainable with that kind of precipitous drawdown.

    SEN. JOE BIDEN: That wasn’t the question.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: No, no, that wasn’t the question. I’m not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I’m trying to get to an endpoint. That’s what all of us have been trying to get to.

    And see, the problem I have is if the definition of success is so high — no traces of al-Qaeda and no possibility of reconstitution, a highly-effective Iraqi government, a Democratic multiethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy, no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don’t like — then that portends the possibility of us staying for twenty or thirty years.

    If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo, but there’s not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there’s still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it’s not a threat to its neighbors and it’s not an al-Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe, and that, I think, is what everybody here on this committee has been trying to drive at, and we haven’t been able to get as clear of an answer as we would like.

    AMBASSADOR RYAN CROCKER: And that’s because, Senator, it is a — I mean, I don’t like to sound like a broken record, but this is hard, and this is complicated.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Ryan Crocker being questioned by senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, more excerpts of the hearings and a debate. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by three guests. Arun Gupta is editor of The Indypendent, a bimonthly newspaper based here in New York, currently writing a book on the history of the Iraq war to be published by Haymarket Press. He joins us in our firehouse studio. In Washington, D.C., I’m joined by Eli Lake, a senior reporter for the New York Sun. And also joining us from Washington, historian, investigative journalist Gareth Porter. He specializes in US national security policy and writes regularly on Iran and Iraq for the Inter Press Service. We welcome you all to Democracy Now!

Arun Gupta, first, your reaction to the hearings, also it being seen as a debate between the presidential candidates? McCain and Clinton and Obama all had a chance to question Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus.

ARUN GUPTA: Yeah, I think one of the interesting aspects is that there’s this elaborate dance that goes on between the media, the Pentagon and the politicians. We all knew what Petraeus was going to say, that he was going to come there and say, well, we can’t draw down troops, but the corporate media treats it as this is some sort of dramatic breaking news, because I think what Petraeus’s real goal is to ensure that the occupation continues unhindered until January of 2009. What the Bush administration’s goal at this point and what it really has been for the last few years is to pass off a raging occupation to the next administration, because it’s going to make it harder for them to withdraw when you have 140,000 US troops, 180,000-plus mercenaries and private contractors, the largest US embassy in the world and enduring US military bases all throughout Iraq. So, you know, there was no real news in that.

And in terms of the candidates, I think one thing that caught me was when Obama was talking about the endpoint. He implied that there would be 30,000 troops. So he is, in a way, calling for an open-ended occupation also; it’s just at a lower level. And when Clinton, when she had her chance, she said we’ll begin the process of withdrawal, which again implies that this could be a many-year process. So it seems to me that this is part of the dance, that even though the Democrats talk about withdrawal, because a large majority of the American public wants this war to end and an overwhelming majority of the Iraqi public wants this war to end, they are all still committed to the continuation and the maintenance of the American empire, especially the occupation of Iraq, because we’ve ended up roiling one of the most strategic countries in the most strategic region in the world in terms of energy production.

AMY GOODMAN: Eli Lake of the New York Sun

, were you surprised by anything yesterday?

ELI LAKE: Yeah, I mean, I was — I think I would agree that Senator Obama began laying out markers for a policy that wouldn’t betray the Iraqi people to the forces of al-Qaeda, Quds and the remnants of the Baath Party, which apparently other people in the left of the Democratic Party think are the true voices of the Iraqis.

And I think that you also saw an interesting exchange on the Status of Forces Agreement, where we don’t really know the status of this agreement. It’s certainly not going to be a treaty that’s going to be submitted to the Senate. It is, however, going to go to the Iraqi parliament, as I think you played in your clips. And I think that they said at one point that there would be an explicit — or Ryan Crocker said he expected there would be an explicit declaration that the US would not seek permanent bases in Iraq. That was somewhat news to me.

And finally, I think that what you saw also was over and again General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker said that you’re seeing the Iranians supporting these special groups who are — who they said they’ve trained, funded, equipped and so forth. And when you really kind of get on a ground level, I mean, that, you know, the Iranians have a policy of playing many sides in Iraq obviously, but these special groups are people who are targeting civilians. So I think, in that respect, they’ve made it — they think they’ve put it in very crystal relief the sort of role that the Iranians are playing, and I think you heard less — in fact, I hardly heard anything where another bugaboo in the past has been the Syrian — I think you’ve seen the Syrians or fewer of the terrorists coming into Iraq from Syria, who are sort of these, what they call lethal accelerants.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service, your response, and especially looking at the number of times Iran was brought up and how it’s being cast right now?

GARETH PORTER: Well, this whole narrative about the special groups that Eli Lake refers to and which has been referred to repeatedly over the past year and more by the US military in Iraq is essentially dodge. It’s never been true that the Iranians have been selecting out specific splinter groups from the Mahdi Army to support. That idea suggests that the Iranians have much less influence and power in Iraq than they actually do.

And I have to say that, parenthetically, that it seems to me that this has at least as one purpose trying to minimize the difficulty the United States faces in regard to the Shiites in Iraq. The reality is that the United States faces a Mahdi Army, which has perhaps 70,000, 80,000 full-time troops and hundreds of thousands of part-time supporters, military supporters, as well as millions of civilians who support them. And the whole idea that its special groups are the problem in Basra, as well as other cities in the south — Basra being the second-largest city in Iraq — now controlled by the Mahdi Army, it’s being obscured by the idea that there are these splinter group — special groups, they’re being called by the US military — that are being supported by Iran. And the reality is that the United States faces a much bigger adversary in the Mahdi Army, which is dedicated to getting the United States out of Iraq.

I was impressed by just how far both Crocker and Petraeus went in trying to obscure that reality. They’re trying to convey to the congressional committees and to the American people the idea that the United States is somehow really in control. And I’m afraid this line is primarily dedicated to trying to convey that very false idea.

AMY GOODMAN: Eli Lake, response?

ELI LAKE: Yeah, I don’t understand why anyone would believe what Mr. Porter just said, and I don’t understand what Mr. Porter is basing that on. You see — you’ve got a Muqtada al-Sadr, who’s the leader of the Mahdi Army from Qom, contradicting himself several times. During the fighting in Basra, at first he said he wanted a nonviolent response. Then he said his guys could defend themselves. And then, you know, and then there was — he said that they were going to be pulled off the street. He made a list of demands. I haven’t seen any evidence that he’s gotten any of them. He called a million-man march in Najaf. He changed it to Baghdad. He then is calling that off. He’s now basically in negotiations with the Hawza in Najaf, the sort of clerical elite in Najaf, where he’s not studying, I might add, asking sort of what’s going to happen to the status of his army, which strikes me as a sort of face-saving way to, in many ways, decommission the anti-government elements of it. And I mean, I just, frankly, don’t — I mean, it’s — I think what you just heard from Gareth Porter is an inversion of probably — I mean, of what is happening. It’s kind of astounding to listen to.

AMY GOODMAN: Gareth Porter?

GARETH PORTER: Well, if I may — yes, if I may respond to that —-


GARETH PORTER: —- this military and rightwing line about the idea that the Mahdi Army is split up and is weak and is no longer a problem is exactly the opposite of what the world’s media have reported from Basra over the past two weeks. The fact is that it was the Mahdi Army which resisted the —-

ELI LAKE: Gareth Porter, who’s in Basra?

GARETH PORTER: —- military operations. Pardon?

ELI LAKE: Who is in Basra? Basra, as I’ve seen it, at least in American papers and for the most part, we’ve seen very little coverage of Basra of note, and we’ve heard reports from the Iraqi army that they now control the port, and they’re exercising control over the city. I mean, I just think this is a fantasy that you’re putting out there.

GARETH PORTER: You’re making a very, very selective reading of the world’s media.

ELI LAKE: A selective reading, my foot.

GARETH PORTER: If you read the reports about what —-


GARETH PORTER: —- the way in which the battle was left after the mediation that took place in Qom with the pro-government parties going to beseech the help of the Iranian IRGC —-

ELI LAKE: Yes, I’ve read the McClatchy news report. I know exactly what you’re talking about.

GARETH PORTER: The fact is -— the fact is that the Mahdi Army was left in control of most of that city. That’s still the case today. And the idea that they’re not really the problem, that it’s some selected splinter groups, is simply a fantasy. And let me just —-

ELI LAKE: Well, I mean, I think -— Amy, if I could say, you’re seeing a classic example. The left often conflates sort of, you know, a terrorism and cruelty with a sort of nationalist bona fides, and we see it all the time. And I think, Gareth Porter, you actually have some experience in this, having, you know, in the 1970s accused people who said that there was a genocide in Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge of touting CIA propaganda and a rightwing line at the time. I mean, so I don’t know, I think you’re 0-for-two on this one.

GARETH PORTER: Well, I think that you’re going to see that the reality is very different from the one that —-

ELI LAKE: I don’t know. Is it going to be the reality, like what you told us in that book about the Phnom Penh?

GARETH PORTER: Let me just point out -— let me just point out that the individual who was named as the head of this splinter group, the so-called special groups, Qais Khazali —-


GARETH PORTER: —- is in fact the person who the head of the Mahdi Army, Muqtada al-Sadr, has said should be released by the US government. The fact is that he was never a part of a splinter group. He was always working with the Sadrists.

ELI LAKE: I’m saying Muqtada al-Sadr says a whole lot of things. I discount a lot of it as lies. The man, when his party controlled the hospitals of Baghdad, turned them into abitoires. My point here is that you seem to take the Sadr line and then say that that’s true and then accuse the people who are giving you different information of lying, when I think it’s a bit the other way around. And I’m just sick of it.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to the hearing.


AMY GOODMAN: Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain seemed to imply that al-Qaeda could belong to either, quote, “an obscure sect” of the Shias or, quote, “the Sunnis or anybody else.”

    SEN. JOHN 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. DAVID PETRAEUS: It is still a major threat, though it is certainly not as major a threat as it was, say, fifteen months ago.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Certainly not an obscure sect of the Shiites all overall?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: No. No, sir.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Or Sunnis or anybody else then.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator McCain’s statement yesterday came less than a month after he insisted Iran is training al-Qaeda. He corrected himself after Senator Joe Lieberman stepped in — this was in Jordan — and whispered in his ear.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: Well, it’s common knowledge and has been reported in the media that al-Qaeda is going back into Iran and receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran. That’s well known. And it’s unfortunate. So I believe that we are succeeding in Iraq. The situation is dramatically improved. But I also want to emphasize time and again al-Qaeda is on the run, but they are not defeated.

    SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: [whispering] You said that the Iranians were training al-Qaeda. I think you meant they’re training in extremist terrorism.

    SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I’m sorry, the Iranians are training extremists, not al-Qaeda, not al-Qaeda. I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Eli Lake, what about this confusion?

ELI LAKE: I mean, listen, the Iranians have some connections with Sunni insurgents. The military has said that. They also have had, according to the 9/11 Commission, plenty of contacts with al-Qaeda. It’s not a hard concept, and I don’t understand why the left doesn’t understand this, that sometimes people who are competitors, like Sunni terrorists and Shia terrorists, will collaborate against a common enemy. In this case, it would be, I would say, you know, the prospects of an Iraqi democracy and, of course, the American military presence. And there is some degree of cooperation.

What he specifically said about Iran training members of al-Qaeda, there is really not much evidence of that kind of training relationship, but an organization that calls itself al-Qaeda in Kurdistan, or Ansar al-Suna, which is part of sort of larger Islamic state of Iraq, is based in the five towns on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan on the Iran side and receives political refugee cards, according to my own reporting from the ground talking to Kurdish security officials at the time who were on the record. And I might add that the Kurdish security officials who spoke with me have a fairly good relationship with the Iranian government, but they have made this clear so many times in their own diplomatic discussions with them and saying, “Hey, you’ve got to cut this out.” So listen, is it the exact relationship that McCain said, but hardly the gaffe that some people have sort of made it out to be.

AMY GOODMAN: Arun Gupta?

ARUN GUPTA: Yeah, I think this would make for great fiction, but there doesn’t seem to be any congress with reality in what Mr. Lake is saying. I want to pick up on some of the things he said initially. “Betray the Iraqi people” to al-Qaeda and the Baathists — well, that’s precisely who is in these Awakening groups, these concerned citizen councils, that General Petraeus has been setting up over the last years. It’s well known that these are former insurgents, that there was an excellent report by Nir Rosen, who was on the show last week, in Rolling Stone, who was even interviewing members of these Awakening groups who were al-Qaeda.

And then Mr. Lake talked about special groups targeting civilians. That’s really a remarkable assertion to make, when in the last two weeks we’ve seen US fighter jets and helicopter gunships strafing some of the densest urban areas in the world, such as Sadr City, killing hundreds of civilians.

And then he talks about Iranians playing all sides. Again, that’s a complete fiction compared to the fact that it’s the US who is playing all sides. We’re setting Sunni against Shia. We’re setting Sunni against Sunni. We’re setting Shia against Shia. What’s really going on in Basra is the fruition of a long-term policy that goes back all the way to 2004, when General Petraeus was in charge of all Iraqi police and military training and set up these forces that became death squads, the Special Police Commandos and all these various irregular forces that were used against the Sunni insurgency. And what’s gone on over the last year and a half is a strategy first to isolate the Sadrists in the parliament and then to use the Badr Brigade, which is with this — the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, which is actually an Iranian-created organization from the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. So essentially what you have is the US is using this Badr Brigade militias, who were integrated throughout the Iraqi Security Forces in this attack in Basra. If you look closely at the reporting that came out, the Iraqi government was not really sending down army forces; they were sending down the Special Police Commandos, who have been renamed the National Police, they were sending down these SWAT teams that General Petraeus helped set up in the summer of 2004, and they were sending down Special Forces, which are believed to come largely from Kurdish Peshmurga, all militias. And so, really, this — it’s the US who’s doing all this. But Mr. Lake is basically trying to weave this fantasy of that, that Iran is doing this, when every single bit of evidence points to — he should just substitute “United States” for “Iran.”

AMY GOODMAN: We have to go to break, but we’ll be back with this debate. We are joined by Arun Gupta. He is the editor of The Indypendent based here in New York. We’re joined by Eli Lake — he’s with the New York Sun in Washington, D.C. — and Gareth Porter of Inter Press Service. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.



This is a day after General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have reported back to the Congress. They are testifying again today. Our guests, discussing what they have found and the questioning of them by, among others, the three leading presidential candidates — McCain, Clinton and Obama — Arun Gupta, he’s an editor at The Indypendent in New York; Inter Press Service’s Gareth Porter in Washington; and Eli Lake of the New York Sun, also in D.C.

Eli Lake, I wanted to ask you about a piece you had written, “Iran is Found to be a Lair of Al Qaeda,” and I’m reading now from the American Conservative, a piece by Justin Logan. He says “Lake published a claim purportedly leaked to him that the National Intelligence Estimate judged that one of two senior al-Qaeda leadership councils ‘meets regularly in eastern Iran.’”

And then he quotes your piece, saying “there is little disagreement that a branch of al Qaeda’s leadership operates in Iran, [but] the intelligence community diverges on the extent to which the hosting of the senior leaders represents a policy of the regime in Tehran or the rogue [actions] of Iran’s Quds Force, the terrorist support units that report directly to Iran’s supreme leader.”

Justin Logan then says, “Unfortunately for Mr. Lake, the story was tersely refuted by National Intelligence Officer for Transnational Threats Edward Gistaro. Asked at a National Press Club briefing whether the judgment Lake described was in the final draft report, Gistaro replied, ‘No, it is not. I don’t think it was ever in the draft. … I read [the Sun article] this morning, and I thought, I don’t know where this comes from.’”

Your response?


Well, I mean, first of all, I stand by the story. And Gistaro is essentially the official briefer, and if Justin Logan wants to believe the official briefer — but this is widely reported. You know, Fran Townsend has talked about these management councils in the past, and so have numerous people.

The truth of the matter is, is that if you go back to Richard Clarke’s book — you can read George Tenet’s account of this — after the Afghanistan invasion, you saw the al-Qaeda leadership, some of them — most of them fled to Pakistan, but some people, like Saif al-Adel and Saad bin Laden and others, fled to Iran. There was a period of negotiations between the US and Iran about trying to get these senior leaders. It never worked out. And while that was going on, they essentially sort of established a base, which most of the communication, at least with al-Qaeda in Iraq — and I want to stress this — this is fairly general guidance, is coming from Iran, and a lot of the transport and that. It’s not the same as saying that they’re harboring them or that, in fact, they’re sponsoring them, which is a sort of, as I said, you know, kind of a traditional way of describing it, but in fact it is —- they are there.

I stand by it, and I’ve seen the reports. So, you know, I mean, I’m happy to have Justin Logan, you know, who I don’t particularly think that much of, to challenge it or whoever. I’m sure Gareth Porter, who says all kinds of crazy things, would like to challenge it, you know, so -—


Well, let’s hear what Gareth Porter has to say.




Yes, I would like to challenge it. You know, this is a, again, very highly selective reading of the intelligence on the situation regarding al-Qaeda operatives in Iran. Yes, they did go into Iran, as they did go into Pakistan. Most of them were, of course, in Pakistan and operated very freely in the Pakistan-Afganistan border area — have ever since then. There’s this kind of a double standard here with regard to people like Eli Lake, who would like to argue that in Pakistan, you know, the government is trying its best to track them down, whereas in Iran they’re deliberately harboring them. That was, of course, the Bush Administration official line for years, even though in the end Dick Cheney finally said he agreed there was no evidence of any real link between Iran and al-Qaeda.


When did Dick Cheney ever say that?


He said it last year.


I don’t think so. Well, anyway —


I’d be glad to share that with you.


It’s in the 9/11 Commission report.


It’s on the record. There’s no question about it.


I want to go to Arun Gupta. What is your assessment of General Petraeus’s strategy in Iraq?


Well, I think really what it is is a civil war. I think what happened in 2004 — he was given this mission in June of 2004. That was less than two months after the Iraqi Security Forces completely collapsed in the twin Shiite and Sunni uprisings of April 2004. So he was given this mission to reconstitute all the Iraqi Security Forces. And it’s there at that point, when the US essentially installed Ayad Allawi as the interim prime minister, that began this strategy of setting up all these various militias that we know about.

And I don’t think initially the idea was, well, this is going to be sectarian-based. But if we fast-forward a year after the first round of the elections for a transitional government, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq — at that point that was known as SCIRI — got into power, and the government, the Iraqi government, was divided up essentially by fiefdoms, and SCIRI got the Interior Ministry portfolio. And one of its chief people, Bayan Jabr, was a commander in the Badr Brigades. And there is when we start to see a huge influx of Badr Brigade militiamen into these Special Police Commandos and other militias that were then used as death squads against the Sunni insurgency.

Now, if we fast-forward a couple years more, what we see now is a much more deliberate strategy, one to divide the Sunnis against each other with these Awakening councils, secondly to deliberately use the Badr Brigade — the US has been backing the Badr forces for about a couple years now in its fights with the Mahdi Army. They’ve been sending planes and helicopters to support these pitched battles throughout the south. And since Sadr issued his freeze last August, the US has been arresting and assassinating hundreds of Mahdi Army militiamen, while Badr has been going throughout the south and also arresting and killing all sorts of Mahdi Army commanders.


I want to play an excerpt of Independent Senator Joseph Lieberman’s comments yesterday. He clearly criticized the harsher questioning of Petraeus by some Democrats on the Armed Services Committee.

    SEN. JOSEPH LIEBERMAN: 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, 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 some credit for that.

    I repeat, I wish we could have an agreement on the facts, which you’ve 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.


This is Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana, the last member of the Armed Services Committee to question General Petraeus.

    SEN. EVAN BAYH: My final question, gentlemen, is this. I noticed in — and Senator McCain is no longer here — it was his opinion that success, I think, in his words, was within reach. And another quote was that success would come sooner than many imagined. Now, I don’t want to get you sucked into the presidential campaign and ask you to respond to that directly. But many Americans are going to look at your testimony here today and all this proceeding and these questions, and they’re asking themselves, Well, what does all this mean about the way forward? Is success truly almost at hand? Or is this, you know, a commitment without end? And so my final question to you would be, is it not possible to at least offer some rough estimate about when we will be able to, after this brief pause, recommence extricating ourselves by withdrawing more troops from Iraq, down to some longer-term level? Is it just impossible to offer any rough estimate?

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Senator, if you believe, as I do, and the commanders on the ground believe that the way forward on reduction should be conditions-based, then it is just flat not responsible to try to put down a stake in the ground and say this is when it will be or that is when it will be, with respect.

    SEN. EVAN BAYH: I understand that, General. Many Americans will listen to that and believe this to be an open-ended commitment, because, by definition, we won’t know until we get there, and there have been so many ups and downs in this thing. I think it’s a fair estimate to say that when this began, most did not assume that we’d be sitting here five years on with the conditions that we currently have. And so, again, I’m just trying to give the American people a fair judgment about where we stand and what the likely way forward is. And I guess the best answer to that is, we’ll know when we get there, and we don’t know when we’re going to get there.

    GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS: Senator, as I just said, we have, we believe, the appropriate way, based on the military commanders on the ground, to sustain and build on the progress that has been achieved over the course of the last twelve or fifteen months, is to make reductions when the conditions allow you to do that without unduly risking all that we’ve fought so hard to achieve.


General Petraeus being questioned by the Democratic senator from Indiana, Evan Bayh. We’re going to get last comments now on where you believe — what should happen next — Gareth Porter, let’s start with you — and what you think will happen next, what should happen next.


Well, you know, just in terms of the impact of these hearings, the problem that I see is that there was never really a focus on, you know, whether the United States has mastered the forces that have been opposed to and will remain opposed to the US occupation and the government forces that the US is supporting. It’s interesting that there’s no discussion in any of these questions to Petraeus about order of battle. No one is asking how many people is it that are opposed to the United States militarily in Iraq now? I think that’s an issue that we still need to take a look at in order to have a realistic expectation about whether this is a viable exercise. So, you know, what is the next step? Well, you know, I think the next step is to elect a new president, and then we can have really a different debate with a different cast of characters.


Eli Lake of the New York Sun?


Yeah, I mean, before I just get on, I just — there was something that was said before you played those clips that the strategy of the US is to divide and conquer the Sunnis and the Shias. And that’s just an extraordinary thing to say. And I think that actually, I mean, that strategy was to, you know, defeat and bring in sheikhs in Anbar, at first, and other Sunni sheikhs, to defeat the equivalent of the Islamic Khmer Rouge. And we’re seeing something like that happening on a tribal level with — in the Shia areas.

As far as that order of battle question, I don’t really understand it. I think that you’re seeing a strategy that is beginning to pay for — to largely work, and I think that, for the most part, the people who call this military engagement an occupation, who believe that it’s a sin, to believe that America is responsible for all of the death toll and sort of excuse al-Qaeda and the other actual people targeting civilians, really are a small minority, and I think more and more you’re going to find that most Americans are kind of revolted by that position and will gravitate towards an Obama that will tack to the center or a McCain that’s also tacking to the center.


It was you who released that report that you said you got a hold of that — with Obama keeping some — a suggestion to Obama from an adviser to keep 60,000 to 80,000 troops in Iraq.


The head of the Iraq policy group, yeah. Yeah, I think you’re going to see more of that. And I think, you know, I don’t know, Code Pink will continue, I suppose, to protest and so forth.


Arun Gupta?


Just one quick correction. Under international law, everything in the international law, the US is, by definition, an occupier, and it is, by definition, an occupation, is what the UN determined in May of 2003 when it endorsed its occupation.


[crosstalk] There’s a UN resolution [inaudible]. Don’t even — you know what? Alright, you just say things because you like the way they sound?


So let’s take a look at the success that Mr. Lake loves to talk about. You’re talking about over five million refugees, a phenomenal number, 20 percent of the population; anywhere from 200,000 to over one million dead Iraqis. Just it really —- it borders on genocide. This is the success that he talks about -—


[crosstalk] What is like genocide? Where are you getting these numbers from?


— a country with no security, a country with no services whatsoever, with a government that does not exist beyond the Green Zone, that is essentially under the complete control of the Bush administration.


We have ten seconds.


What should happen? A full immediate US withdrawal on one condition: reparations to Iraqis for the devastation we’ve wrought on them for the last seventeen years.


Arun Gupta, I want to thank you, from the New York Indypendent, Eli Lake of the New York Sun, and Gareth Porter, investigative reporter with Inter Press Service.

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