WASHINGTON - The Bush administration's top two officials in Iraq answered questions from Congress for more than six hours on Monday, but their testimony may have been as important for what they didn't say as for what they did.
A chart displayed by Army Gen. David Petraeus that purported to show the decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad between December and August made no effort to show that the ethnic character of many of the neighborhoods had changed in that same period from majority Sunni Muslim or mixed to majority Shiite Muslim.
Neither Petraeus nor U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker talked about the fact that since the troop surge began the pace by which Iraqis were abandoning their homes in search of safety had increased. They didn't mention that 86 percent of Iraqis who've fled their homes said they'd been targeted because of their sect, according to the International Organization for Migration.
While Petraeus stressed that civilian casualties were down over the last five weeks, he drew no connection between that statement and a chart he displayed that showed that the number of attacks rose during at least one of those weeks.
Petraeus also didn't highlight the fact that his charts showed that "ethno-sectarian" deaths in August, down from July, were still higher than in June, and he didn't explain why the greatest drop in such deaths, which peaked in December, occurred between January and February, before the surge began.
And while both officials said that the Iraqi security forces were improving, neither talked about how those forces had been infiltrated by militias, though Petraeus acknowledged that during 2006 some Iraqi security forces had participated in the ethnic violence.
Both officials said they believed that Iraq was on the path to potential success. Petraeus said that "the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met." Crocker was similarly optimistic: "In my judgment, the cumulative trajectory of political, economic and diplomatic developments in Iraq is upwards, although the slope of that line is not steep."
They both pleaded for more time, even as Petraeus said that the U.S. should begin pulling troops out, with the goal of being back to the pre-surge level of 130,000 troops by next July. Further reductions would be considered next spring, as conditions allow, he said.
Both men celebrated their plan's success in encouraging residents in once-restive Anbar province to work with U.S. troops against al Qaida in Iraq.
Petraeus conceded that that success didn't extend to Ninevah province, where progress "has been much more up and down." But he didn't say that many believe that al Qaida numbers increased there only after the surge began. Ninevah is where some of the largest bombings of the year occurred, including the attack on the Yazidis, which killed more than 300.
He also offered a tepid endorsement of the Iraqi security forces, at times saying that they were increasingly capable of defending Iraq, while conceding that they needed to show more progress.
"Iraqi security forces have also continued to grow and shoulder more of the load, albeit slowly and amid continuing concerns about the sectarian tendencies of some elements in their ranks," Petraeus said. "In general, however, Iraqi elements have been standing and fighting and sustaining tough losses, and they have taken the lead in operations in many areas."
He said 445,000 people were on the security forces' payroll, but didn't discuss that many officials believe that thousands of those don't actually exist, but are phantoms whose salaries actually go into ministry officials' pockets.
Both Iraqis and U.S. officials concede that militias have infiltrated the security forces and that political leaders continue to interfere with their operations to serve their sects' interests.
Petraeus presented a series of maps to show how sectarian violence had dropped in Baghdad from December 2006 to August 2007. But all of the maps showed the same color-coding for Sunni, Shiite and mixed neighborhoods, even though the ethnicity of many neighborhoods have shifted dramatically over the previous year. U.S. military officials say that Baghdad was once 65 percent Sunni and is now 75 percent Shiite.
Questions from the 107 members of Congress who sat in on the hearing rarely produced more detail.
Still, the two men, considered by many to be among the most capable U.S. public servants to have served in Iraq, didn't attempt to hide their reservations. Both said they couldn't guarantee success.
Crocker, a fluent Arabic speaker and a lifelong student of the area, questioned the U.S. criteria for measuring success and said that the Iraqi government might never meet most of the 18 benchmarks laid out by Congress in a May law. Petraeus, who wrote the Army's counterinsurgency manual, acknowledged that violence remained at unacceptable levels.
Independent observers said the numbers that Crocker and Petraeus provided showed the violence has dropped to about where it was in May 2006, a few months after a February 2006 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine in the mostly Sunni city of Samarra, which the military uses to mark the rise in sectarian violence.
"At best, what you've got is the status quo from May or June of 2006," said Kirk Johnson, who served for 13 months as the chief statistician for Crocker and who said he supports the current strategy in Iraq.
Rand Beers, a former White House counterterrorism aide who resigned to protest the invasion of Iraq, noted there was another troop surge, in Baghdad, in summer 2006.
"We've had two surges, and in a way, things are back to the level before the first surge," Beers said in a conference call with reporters.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Robert Gard said that it was understandable that Petraeus emphasized the positive.
"He's a human being and he's a military human being that wants to accomplish the mission," Gard said.
Youssef reported from Washington, Fadel, from Baghdad. Warren P. Strobel in Washington contributed.
© 2007 McClatchy Newspapers