Petraeus: Troops in Iraq help blunt Iran threat

Army Gen. David Petraeus, who is to assume control of U.S. forces in the Middle East, says that a continued U.S. presence in Iraq is more likely to blunt, rather than inflame, Iran’s growing influence in the region.

In a 46-page question-and-answer document submitted in advance of his confirmation hearing on Thursday, Petraeus says the U.S. must work on developing more leverage — primarily diplomatic or economic — to pressure Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. But, he notes, the U.S. must retain military strike options as a “last resort.”

“A destabilized Iraq, rampant terrorism in the region and a nuclear-armed Middle East are not in any nation’s long-term interest, including Iran’s,” according to the document, obtained by The Associated Press.

Last month, President Bush picked Petraeus, a four-star general, to replace Navy Adm. William J. Fallon as chief of U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla. The command’s area of responsibility includes some of the most troubling hotspots: Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, parts of Africa and Afghanistan.

Fallon resigned last month, saying news reports that he was at odds with the White House over Iran policy had become a distraction.

Replacing Petraeus as the top commander in Baghdad will be Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who spent 15 months as Petraeus’ top deputy. Odierno and Petraeus are expected to testify Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Presidential campaign politics will likely be on display during the hearing with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton as a panel member. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the top Republican on the committee, is expected to miss the hearing because he is in California.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates hasn’t lobbied members of the Senate on the nominations, although Petraeus made the rounds on Capitol Hill this week, visiting with senators.

“These two veterans of combat and leadership in Iraq have more than demonstrated their ability to take on these new commands,” Morrell said. “The secretary is supremely confident that the Congress recognizes that and will quickly approve their nominations so that they can get on to their jobs as soon as possible.”

Indeed, the Senate is expected to eventually approve the two nominations, but not before Democrats get a chance to sharply question Petraeus and Odierno on when more troops might come home and whether the U.S. war effort in Iraq has aggravated the violence there.

When asked by the Senate panel whether a lengthy deployment in Iraq only strengthens Iran’s influence in the region, Petraeus responded that the opposite was true. It “has the potential to counter malign Iranian influence against the government of Iraq, build common cause in the region and expose the extent of malign Iranian activities to the world,” he wrote.

In his response to committee questions, Odierno said the greatest threat to stability in Iraq was the struggle for power among feuding sectarian groups, as well as meddling by Iran and al-Qaida.

“As U.S. forces in theater draw down, we must ensure that malign influences are unable to re-establish themselves through violence,” Odierno wrote.

Last year, both generals were integral in crafting and implementing Bush’s new military strategy in Iraq, which included the deployment of 30,000 additional troops.

Petraeus has recommended, and Bush has agreed, to withdraw the extra troops by July and to halt further reductions after that. Petraeus has said he needs a 45-day period of evaluation and then an indefinite period of assessment before he would recommend any further pullouts.

In their written responses, Petraeus and Odierno defended the pause in troop reductions as necessary to ensure gains in security aren’t lost.

“There is no simple metric or calculation that can give us a green or red light on further reductions,” Odierno wrote. Various factors will be considered, but “I will rely most heavily on my subordinate commanders’ recommendations and my own independent judgment,” he said.

On Afghanistan, Petraeus said he agreed with other senior military officials that requirements there are going unfulfilled, while U.S. forces remain committed in such large numbers in Iraq.
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