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Last Updated: Saturday, 15 September 2007, 07:09 GMT 08:09 UK
US debate behind Iraq troop numbers
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Washington

It has been an intense, but strangely unsatisfactory few days in Washington.

General Petraeus before Congress - 12/09/2007
Gen Petraeus has become much more than a military man
After all the charts and testimony, the cross examinations and posturing, big questions remain: have we seen a change of momentum in US Iraq policy or just the impression of one?

Does the planned withdrawal of 5,700 US troops by Christmas, announced by President George W Bush, amount to anything more than a recognition of the limits of an overstretched military?

Or, is the first word of the week's new White House phrase, "return on success", a pointer to a wider draw-down dynamic?

And what of Mr Bush's apparently open-ended commitment to Iraq; a country whose government is, according to the latest White House report, only making satisfactory progress towards meeting half of the 18 benchmarks it has been set.

Broadly speaking, will an increasingly frustrated US public buy the call for more time and more patience?

How you answer these questions depends, to a certain extent, on your view of the man at the centre of the week's events - Gen David Petraeus.

Sober assessment

Almost from the moment his September report to Congress was agreed upon, the top US commander in Iraq became much more than a military man.

His report was viewed as a make or break moment for the administration's troop surge strategy.

The ad, taken out in the New York times, by the left-wing group moveon.org, had the tag line: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us"

In the event, the most notable breakage was to a microphone, which the general was supposed to be using for his testimony in the House of Representatives.

It was a rather embarrassing start to proceedings - but one of the few moments of genuine surprise, after a public relations blitz, which had rather sucked the drama from the occasion.

We largely got what we were expecting: a sober, but generally positive assessment of the situation in Iraq, which concluded that modest security improvements - especially in Anbar province - would allow some US troops to return by Christmas, but that the US would need to retain a long term commitment to the region.

As has so often been the case, violent events on the ground would cast a shadow over Washington's calculations.

Fragile improvements

On Thursday, one of the most important Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province, Sheikh Adbul-Sattar Abu Risha was killed by a car bomb, just 10 days after he had shaken President Bush's hand.

He had been a central figure in the Sunni uprising against al-Qaeda in Iraq.

As Mr Bush prepared to address the nation on Thursday evening, the killing underscored the fragility of the security improvements, which he would cite as proof that the troop surge was working.

US soldier in Baghdad, 14/09
Mr Bush wants the troops' role to become more advisory
And, in a very Washington twist, the political debate about a costly and consequential war often dwelled less on the merits of the general's assessments than on a newspaper advert.

The ad, taken out in the New York times, by the left-wing group moveon.org, had the tag line: "General Petraeus or General Betray Us".

It was described as "despicable" by White House officials and used by Republicans as a chance to accuse Democrats, who failed to condemn it, of a lack of patriotism.

By the end of the week, Republican presidential hopeful, Rudy Giuliani, had taken out his own advert in the newspaper, accusing leading Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, of besmirching Gen Petraeus' character.

He linked her scepticism about the general's assessment to the moveon.org advertisement.

Congressional battle

Amid the political posturing, the episode did point to a real problem for the Democrats, as they balance the demands of their anti-war base with the political reality of their slim Congressional majority.

It is too slim, in fact, to pass any meaningful legislation, in the view of another presidential hopeful, Barack Obama.

Unless, that is, enough Republicans can be persuaded to jump ship and join the Democrats as they attach amendments to the Defence Authorisation Bill, such as one that would guarantee troops serving in Iraq home leave as long as their tours of duty.

How many of them will switch sides remains an unknown at this stage.

Although some of the party's waverers - such as Sen Susan Collins of Maine - have clearly not been persuaded by the general's words.

Others are keeping their counsel, mulling over decisions that could have a bearing on their chances of re-election next year.

The battle is expected to resume in the Senate on Monday.

There may have been few surprises in the week that has passed, but the political script for the next few weeks has yet to be written.

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