WASHINGTON - Gen. David Petraeus told Congress on Monday he envisions the withdrawal of roughly 30,000 U.S. troops by next summer, beginning with a Marine contingent later this month.
In long-awaited testimony, the commanding general of the war said last winter's buildup in U.S. troops had met its military objectives 'in large measure.'
As a result, he told a congressional hearing and a nationwide television audience, 'I believe that we will be able to reduce our forces to the pre-surge level ... by next summer without jeopardizing the security gains we have fought so hard to achieve.'
Testifying in a military uniform bearing four general's stars and a chestful of medals, Petraeus said he had already provided his views to the military chain of command.
Rebutting charges that he was merely doing the White House's bidding, he said firmly: 'I wrote this testimony myself. It has not been cleared by nor shared with anyone in the Pentagon, the White House or the Congress.'
His testimony came at a politically pivotal moment in the war, with the Democratic-controlled Congress pressing for a troop withdrawal deadline and the Bush administration hoping to prevent wholesale Republican defections on the issue.
Petraeus said that a unit of about 2,000 Marines will depart Iraq later this month, beginning a drawdown that would be followed in mid-December with the departure of an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers.
After that, another four brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008, he said. That would leave the United States with about 130,000 troops in Iraq, roughly the number stationed there last winter when President Bush decided to dispatch additional forces.
He said he believes withdrawals could continue even after the 30,000 extra troops go home, but he added that it would be premature to make any further recommendations.
Initial reaction from Democrats was sour.
Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it was a 'token withdrawal,' and Petraeus rebutted him swiftly.
'A very substantial withdrawal,' he countered.
Petraeus didn't say so, but Ambassador Ryan Crocker strongly suggested that the administration's troop buildup had prevented a debacle.
Testifying alongside the general, Crocker said 2006 was a 'bad year for Iraq. The country came close to unraveling politically, economically and in security terms. 2007 has brought improvement.'
The extent of any improvement has been a matter of debate. The Government Accountability Office, a congressional agency, recently reported that Iraq has partially achieved only four of 18 political and military goals.
While Petraeus focused his remarks mostly on military matters, he also noted the failure thus far of the Iraqi government to take the actions needed to stabilize the country for the long term.