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A Room With Two Views

As Army Gen. David Petraeus led the 101st Airborne Division into Iraq during the 2003 invasion, he turned to embedded Washington Post reporter Rick Atkinson and said, “Tell me how this ends.” It’s doubtful that either could have guessed the answer.

Four and a half years later, it ends here — or at least begins to end here — in a densely packed House hearing room, with the now-elevated Petraeus pleading for more time to calm the chaos that has overtaken Iraq.

Petraeus enters the room an hour early with an entourage of military men. He stands for a few photos, turns and walks back out. The battle over his testimony has started early, too.

MoveOn.org took out a full-page ad in Monday’s New York Times labeling him “General Betray Us,” noting that all independent reports indicate the “surge” has failed. They were immediately set upon by Republican leaders and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), prompting MoveOn’s Eli Pariser to accuse both Petraeus and the White House of “trying to spin the public on this.”

By hearing time Monday, the high-stakes showdown has drawn an overflow crowd; even The Washington Post is having trouble getting in. At 12:30 p.m., Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker enter from the back, passing two rows of wooden tables and four rows of foldouts for the members of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees.

“Tell the truth, General!” says an activist with the radical group Code Pink, sporting a T-shirt — “Generals lie, soldiers die” — that suggests she doesn’t think he will. She is spoken to but not ejected. Her colleague — who shouts, “War criminal!” — is.

A committee tradition — whereby both parties assess the witnesses’ testimony before it’s actually been given — commences. Foreign Affairs Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) calls the surge a “failure” and the project in Iraq a “fiasco.”

“With all due respect to you, I must say, I don’t buy it,” Lantos says of the upbeat report he suspects Petraeus will make. “It may have produced some technical successes, but strategically the escalation has failed. It was intended to buy time” to work toward a political settlement, Lantos explains. “That time has been utterly squandered.”

No war debate would be complete without a sports analogy, and Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) provides it. “While our troops are holding back the opposing team to let them make a touchdown, the Iraqis haven’t even picked up the ball.”

The two panels’ senior Republicans then come to the defense of what they presume Petraeus’ testimony will be. Armed Services ranking member Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), acknowledging that he doesn’t know what Petraeus will say, notes that he does “know the facts” — that things are getting better in Iraq. Both he and Foreign Affairs ranking member Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) also pile on the MoveOn ad, with Ros-Lehtinen asking Democrats to apologize for it.

They don’t, but Skelton does acknowledge many good things about Petraeus, including character and integrity.

Petraeus is not sworn in, as two subsequently ejected protesters insist that he should be, but he promises his testimony will be the unvarnished truth. He begins by telling the joint committee that “this is my testimony” and that “I wrote this testimony myself.” He’s alluding to recent reports that he’s been in regular contact with White House officials to help sell the surge. Regardless, he assures the committee that “the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met.”

Petraeus offers that he is withdrawing from Iraq one Marine unit at the end of the month and could ithdraw a brigade combat team in mid-December, followed by four other brigade combat teams and two Marine battalions “in the first seven months of 2008, until we reach the pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams by mid-July 2008.”

As evidence of the surge’s success, he produces several large cardboard charts, most of which illustrate that violence is declining. While Petraeus continues to testify, the anti-war group Americans Against Escalation in Iraq sends reporters an e-mail fact-checking Petraeus and his charts, noting that the decline in “ethno-sectarian violence” he is touting obscures the fact that violence in general continues.

Excluded from the count, according to news sources cited by the group, is Shiite on Shiite violence, Sunni on Sunni violence and even people shot in the front of the head as opposed to the back. The group cites Associated Press statistics that show violence in Iraq has nearly doubled since the start of the surge in January, from an average of 33 violent deaths a day in 2006 to a current average of 62 per day.

Amid the numbers and the droning testimony, the air starts to get thick as members of the press, public and Congress begin gazing about the committee room. At 3:41 p.m., one or two shouting protesters are removed. Looking mildly annoyed as he peers over the top of his glasses, Skelton reiterates that such disturbances will not be tolerated. “We will prosecute,” he says firmly.

So routine have the protests become that this seems to cause barely a ripple of notice in the audience. Interest in the testimony billed as long-awaited, much anticipated, pivotal, etc., seems to be waning. It’s clear that all the charts and all the data on the planet won’t move this committee one way or the other, as the right side of the room continues to speak against failure and for duty, and the left half speaks of a responsible end and a drawdown of troops.

Lantos, hoping to find something between the Petraeus plan and an immediate, rapid withdrawal, asks Petraeus if he can think of anything in the middle. He can’t.

“I’m at a loss,” says the general.

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