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General says US troops' job in Iraq won't end soon

WASHINGTON -- Conditions in Iraq will not improve sufficiently by September to justify a drawdown of US military forces, the top American commander in Iraq said yesterday.

Asked whether he thought the job assigned to an additional 30,000 troops deployed as the centerpiece of President Bush's new war strategy would be completed by then, General David Petraeus replied, "I do not, no. I think that we have a lot of heavy lifting to do."

Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, his diplomatic counterpart in Baghdad, said a key report they will deliver to Washington in September will also include what Crocker called "an assessment of what the consequences might be if we pursue other directions."

Noting the "unhelpful roles" being played by Iran and Syria in Iraq, Crocker said, "we've got to consider what could happen."

Comments by Petraeus on "Fox News Sunday" and Crocker on NBC's "Meet the Press" were an indication of the administration's evolving strategy for confronting rising congressional demands to begin planning troop withdrawals.

In addition to warning about the possible regional consequences of withdrawal, both men emphasized a "mixed" picture on the ground that cited successes while acknowledging the difficulty of the task ahead.

Asserting there has been steady, albeit slow, military and political progress, Petraeus said the "many, many challenges" would not be resolved "in a year or even two years." Similar counterinsurgency operations, he said, citing Britain's experience in Northern Ireland, "have gone at least nine or 10 years." He said he and Crocker would be making "some recommendations on the way ahead" to Congress, and that it was realistic to assume "some form of long-term security arrangement" with Iraq.

Democrats failed last month to impose a withdrawal timetable in war-funding legislation. But the enacted measure mandated assessments of military, political, and economic progress from Petraeus and Crocker -- rather than from Washington-based administration and military officials -- by Sept. 15. Much will depend on their personal credibility.

A growing number of prominent Republicans who last month rejected any mention of withdrawal have now said they look toward the September report as a crossroads.

"I think everybody anticipates that there's going to be a new strategy in the fall," Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "I don't think we'll have the same level of troops, in all likelihood, that we have now," totaling more than 150,000. "The time to properly evaluate that, it strikes me, is in September."

On the Iraqi political front, McConnell said, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been "a big disappointment. They have not done the things that they know they need to do to hold their country together, things like the new oil law, things like local elections, things like finishing the de-Ba'athification process."

In announcing his new strategy in January, Bush said the troop increase would diminish sectarian violence in Baghdad and break Sunni insurgent control in Anbar Province .