WASHINGTON (AFIS, April 8, 2008) - The United States should take 45 days after the last "surge" brigade leaves Iraq in July to evaluate the situation before deciding future troop levels, the coalition's top military commander said here today.

Gen. David H. Petraeus reported his recommendation in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. He testified along with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker about the situation in Iraq and progress made since September, when the two leaders last delivered an update to Congress and the president.

Petraeus and Crocker both said that while Iraq has made significant security, economic and political gains, the situation remains fragile and the progress is reversible if the United States does not stay the course.

As the United States draws its forces down to the pre-surge level of 15 brigade combat teams, leaders must ensure that the security gains made so far are not jeopardized, Petraeus said. The 45-day evaluation period would give commanders time to assess conditions on the ground and determine when they can make recommendations for further troop reductions, he said.

"This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit," Petraeus said. "This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable; however, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve."

Petraeus cited the operational and strategic considerations he took into account when forming his recommendation, including:

-- The military surge has achieved progress, but that progress is reversible;

-- Iraqi security forces have strengthened their capabilities, but still must grow further;

-- The provincial elections scheduled in the fall, refugee returns, detainee releases, and efforts to resolve provincial boundary disputes will pose challenges;

-- The transition of "Sons of Iraq" -- organized groups of local citizens helping with security -- into the Iraqi security forces or other pursuits will require time and careful monitoring;

-- Withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year;

--Performing the necessary tasks in Iraq will require sizable conventional forces as well as special operations forces and advisor teams;

-- The strain on the U.S. military has been considerable;

-- A number of security challenges inside Iraq also are related to significant regional and global threats; and

-- A failed state in Iraq would pose serious consequences for the greater fight against al-Qaida, for regional stability, for the already existing humanitarian crisis in Iraq, and for the effort to counter Iran influence.

Since September, there has been "significant but uneven security progress in Iraq," Petraeus told the committee. Levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially, al-Qaida and other extremists have been dealt serious blows, the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have grown, and there has been involvement of local Iraqis in security, he said.

"Nonetheless, the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory, and innumerable challenges remain," he said. "Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible."

Several factors have contributed to the progress made in Iraq, Petraeus said. Iraq added more than 100,000 additional soldiers and police to its security forces ranks in 2007. Counterinsurgency operations across the country have pursued al-Qaida, fought criminals and extremists, fostered local reconciliation and enabled political and economic progress. The country also experienced a shift in attitude among the Iraqi population, he said.

"Since the first Sunni 'awakening' in late 2006, Sunni communities in Iraq increasingly have rejected [al-Qaida in Iraq's] indiscriminate violence and extremist ideology," he said. "These communities also recognized that they could not share in Iraq's bounty if they didn't participate in the political arena."

More than 91,000 Sons of Iraq local security volunteers are under contract to help coalition and Iraqi forces protect neighborhoods and secure infrastructure and roads, Petraeus said. These volunteers have helped to reduce violence and contributed to the discovery of improvised explosive devices and weapons caches, he said. The Sons of Iraq have been directly responsible for many lives and vehicles saved, and their value far outweighs the cost of the contracts to pay them, he said.

"Given the importance of the Sons of Iraq, we are working closely with the Iraqi government to transition them into the Iraqi security forces or other forms of employment, and over 21,000 have already been accepted into the police or army or other government jobs," Petraeus said. "This process has been slow, but it is taking place, and we will continue to monitor it carefully."

For nearly six months, security incidents in Iraq have been at a level not seen since early-to-mid 2005, Petraeus reported. Also, the level of civilian deaths has decreased to a level not seen since the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing. Deaths due to ethno-sectarian violence have fallen since September, and the number of high-profile attacks is far below what it was a year ago, the general said.

While this progress is significant, al-Qaida is still capable of lethal attacks, and the coalition must maintain pressure on the organization and the resources that sustain it, Petraeus said. Defeating al-Qaida will require actions by elite counter-terrorist forces, major operations by coalition and Iraqi conventional forces, a sophisticated intelligence effort, political reconciliation, economic and social programs, information operations initiatives, diplomatic activity and many other actions, he said.

Iraqi security forces have grown considerably and continued to develop since September, Petraeus said. More than 540,000 people now serve in the Iraqi forces, and half of Iraq's 18 provinces are under Iraqi provincial control. Additionally, Iraqi's training base has become more robust and is expected to generate another 50,000 Iraqi soldiers and 16 army and special operations battalions through the rest of 2008, he said.

Coalition officials expect that Iraq will spend more than $8 billion on security this year and $11 billion next year, he said, allowing the United States to reduce its Iraqi security forces fund for fiscal 2009 from $5.1 billion to $2.8 billion.

Recent operations in Basra, where Iraqi forces responded to a spike in violence by Shiia extremists, highlighted improvements in the Iraqi forces' ability to deploy units, supplies and replacements on very short notice, Petraeus said. However, they also underscored the considerable work still needed in the areas of logistics, force enablers, staff development, and command and control.

Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, cited Iraq's political gains in the past months. Iraq's parliament has formulated, debated and passed legislation dealing with issues of reconciliation and nation building, he said. The parliament has passed such important laws as a pension law, de-Baathification reform, a provincial powers law, and a vote to change the design of the Iraqi flag.

Crocker also noted the gains made in Iraq's economy and in improving governance and services. The most obvious indicator of these gains has been the revival of marketplaces and long-shuttered businesses, he said.

Iraq is now earning the financial resources it needs for reconstruction through oil production and export, and so the coalition's focus has shifted to capacity development through the provincial reconstruction teams, Crocker said. The 25 PRTs throughout Iraq have been working to improve provincial and local governance capabilities and to establish links between provincial and federal governments.

"We are seeking to ensure that our assistance, in partnership with the Iraqis, leverages Iraq's own resources," Crocker said.

Looking at the progress in the political and economic arenas, as well as the security gains, it is clear the strategy that began with the U.S. troop surge is working, Crocker said. However, it does not mean U.S. support should be open-ended, he said. In this vein, the United States and Iraq have begun negotiating a bilateral relationship that will include economic, political, diplomatic and security cooperation, he said.

This relationship will be a legal framework for the presence of American troops in Iraq, but it will not establish permanent bases there and will not specify troop levels, Crocker said.

"Our aim is to ensure that the next president arrives in office with a stable foundation upon which to base policy decisions, and that is precisely what this agreement will do," he said.