"Neither of us believes we can see past next summer"

Petraeus and Crocker finally see some real questions.

Published September 11, 2007 2:57PM (EDT)

Senators on the Foreign Relations Committee have begun putting questions to Gen. David Petraeus and ambassador Ryan Crocker, and they're not all of the softball sort genuflecting members of the House pitched at them Monday.

Sen. Joseph Biden began the questioning this morning by asking Petraeus if a Sunni Arab can travel today through a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad without being kidnapped or killed. "It depends on the neighborhood, sir," Petraeus said. Is there even one, Biden asked. Petraeus said there are "mixed" neighborhoods where it would be "possible" for a Sunni citizen to walk safely through the streets.

Biden turned to Crocker. "Ambassador," he said, "you indicated that [political progress in Iraq] will not be quick. Should we be telling the American people that we're there for another three, four, five, six, seven years in relatively large numbers?"

Crocker: I think in the past that we have set some expectations that simply couldn't be met, and I'm trying not to do that.

Biden: I'm trying to get an accurate assessment.

Crocker: In terms of concrete things such as force levels, as Gen. Petraeus said, neither of us believes that we can see beyond next summer.

Moments later, Crocker implicitly acknowledged that he could see past next summer -- at least well enough to know with certainty that it will be "well beyond the end of next summer" before Iraq could possibly achieve the "end state" he envisions for it.

Biden turned back to Crocker. "If, in fact, the circumstances on the ground are exactly what they are today in March of next year, will you recommend the continuation of [having] somewhere between 130,000 and 160,000 American troops being shot at, killed and maimed there?" Petraeus said it was a "big hypothetical." When Biden said it wasn't, Petraeus said he would be "hard-pressed" to recommend a continued large U.S. military presence in Iraq next March if conditions there then aren't better than they are today.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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