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Last Updated: Monday, 10 September 2007, 23:19 GMT 00:19 UK
Making the case for US policy in Iraq
By John Simpson
World affairs editor, BBC News, Washington

Gen David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker
Gen Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker testify again on Tuesday

The White House has often shown a certain nervousness about the judgement which Gen David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, would make about the success or otherwise of the surge.

In the first few months, as the surge was building up, Gen Petraeus seemed uncertain himself about whether it would succeed.

He would, he said, announce his judgement on it, independent of what the White House might want, in July.

He was then persuaded to put it off until September.

In the meantime, the White House seemed to be downgrading the importance of what he and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, might say in their reports.

Mr Crocker is a state department Arabist, who was strongly against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and co-wrote a powerful criticism of the plan for circulation inside the Department of State.

But, as he has said, that was his view then.

Now, both Gen Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker clearly feel that it is their duty to make the policy work.

So, in the end, there was no need for the White House to worry about what they might say.

Clear head

When they made their reports, both men gave their clear support to the idea that the United States should continue to keep a strong presence in Iraq for at least the next couple of years.

10 Sept - Gen Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker begin two days of testimony in Congress
12 Sept - White House report to be released
13 Sept - President Bush TV address is expected

Gen Petraeus insisted that the security situation in Iraq was improving.

In Anbar province, Gen Petraeus's showcase, where he has succeeded in turning the Sunni tribal chiefs against al-Qaeda, he maintained that there had been a dramatic change in the security situation.

The fact is, Gen Petraeus has brought a clear head and an educated spirit to the business of counter-insurgency, and his methods have been far more successful than those of his predecessors, who allowed the insurgents to make all the running.

He has also followed the White House practice of treating al-Qaeda as though it were the main element in the insurgency, rather than the general Sunni resistance.

And he has introduced specific measures which have made it harder for suicide bombers and ethnic killers to operate, particularly in Baghdad.

Long-term stay?

Nevertheless the majority judgement in Iraq itself is that while the surge has slowed down the progress of the civil war, it certainly has not ended it.

Between them, the general and the ambassador have done their best to persuade people that things are not going quite as badly as most have assumed

Gen Petraeus himself would presumably agree with that.

No-one, either in Washington or in Iraq, believes the Americans will be there to stay indefinitely, in large enough numbers to affect the eventual outcome of the civil war.

Gen Petraeus himself has said that the average counter-insurgency campaign takes about nine years.

It is virtually impossible to find anyone who thinks the American will to support a democratic Iraq against its internal enemies on the present scale will last that long.

So what we are talking about is what happens during the rest of the presidency of George W Bush.

Will he have to order a major withdrawal of troops from Iraq before the end of his presidency in just over a year's time?

The reports of Gen Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have made that seem less likely.

The White House may well now be able to hold out against the Democrats in Congress and those Republicans who agree that the troops should be pulled out.

The fact is, the precise factual situation on the ground in Iraq is less important to the White House than the way American politicians and the American public think about it.

And between them, the general and the ambassador have done their best to persuade people that things are not going quite as badly as most have assumed.

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