Gen. Petraeus, ambassador to present Iraq assessment

WASHINGTON – Nearing what are likely to be his last big decisions on U.S. troops and strategy in Iraq, President Bush seems to have fewer choices than when his war council last came to town.

Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to offer something for everyone when they testify to Congress beginning Tuesday, including the three senators competing to replace Bush in the White House. But any bright spot in their assessment of Iraq will be viewed through the prism of recent headlines.

Fresh violence has taken the gleam off Bush’s military strategy, and political score-settling among Iraqi leaders shows they still can’t or won’t meet U.S. expectations.

“We’ve thrown out all of the rose-colored glasses in how we look at Iraq,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Monday.

The Democrats aren’t so sure of that, and the mounting American death toll will almost surely lead them to new demands this week for Bush to bring troops home more quickly. While Bush is just as sure to reject that idea, the mixed picture Petraeus and Crocker paint will leave the president without a sure path ahead.

“If there is any clear message that emerges out of the events of the last few weeks, it is that the risks in Iraq remain high enough so that no one can yet say whether the odds of any kind of U.S. success are better than even,” Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Monday. “The fact remains, however, that there is still a marginally better case for staying than for leaving.”

Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker last briefed Congress in September, when Bush’s program of increased troops and a security crackdown in Baghdad seemed to be bearing fruit, and the strategic choice of some Sunni tribes to ally with U.S. and Iraqi government forces had improved the outlook for eventual national political reconciliation.

The picture is much more complex now, with the fate of a Shiite cease-fire in doubt, new fractures among the Shiite majority and its militias and political unrest among frustrated Sunnis.

Violence declined significantly last year, as Bush’s additional troops launched more operations, some Sunni insurgents rejected al-Qaida and allied themselves with the U.S., and anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militants into a cease-fire.

Recent statistics reviewed by The Associated Press show that while violence in Iraq is still down substantially, there have been spikes in both deaths and attacks since the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops began in December.

The internal strife was underscored by a rise in ethno-sectarian violence between Iraqis in March, the first such monthly increase since last July.

Defense officials also warned Monday of another likely spike in attacks this week, as U.S. forces strike back at militia fighters in Sadr City.