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Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

Moments of truth

Iraq | Gen. Petraeus capped a week in the capital highlighting "fragile" war progress

Issue: "Save our cities," April 19, 2008

In a quiet room of somber faces, President George W. Bush fought to maintain his composure as he awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael Monsoor on April 8.

With tears and a trembling lip, Bush described the final moments for the Navy SEAL who died protecting his comrades in Ramadi, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad. Monsoor and two teammates took rooftop positions during a firefight when an insurgent grenade bounced off Monsoor's chest and landed on the roof. Monsoor had a clear exit opportunity, but his two comrades didn't.

"In that terrible moment, he had two options-to save himself, or to save his friends," Bush said. "For Mike, this was no choice at all. He threw himself onto the grenade and absorbed the blast with his body." Both comrades survived, and Bush quoted one of the survivors: "Mikey looked death in the face that day and said, 'You cannot take my brothers. I will go in their stead.'"

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Paul Halladay, a priest and chaplain who served the 25-year-old Monsoor's platoon, told the Catholic News Service that Monsoor's faith made the difference: "So when it came down to laying down his life for his friends, his faith allowed him to be able to do that without a moment's hesitation." Monsoor became the fourth service member honored with the nation's highest award for valor since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began.

In another packed room across town, Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, spent his second day testifying before Congress about the war's progress. The general said the 20,000 extra troops had drastically reduced violence and helped the Iraqi government gain control of about half of the nation's provinces.

He also said the situation in Iraq remains too fragile to quickly withdraw troops. He plans to complete the withdrawal of 20,000 troops by the end of July, but suggested a 45-day waiting period thereafter before bringing additional troops home.

The hearings gave the three remaining presidential candidates opportunities to engage Petraeus face to face. Sen. John McCain, who also attended Monsoor's medal ceremony, said the United States is "no longer staring into the abyss of defeat," and he warned against a rapid troop withdrawal, something his Democratic opponents have advocated. But McCain also acknowledged the war's difficulties and asked Petraeus about the slow-moving progress of the Iraqi army and police: "What are we going to do about it?"

Sen. Hillary Clinton avoided the harshness she employed with Petraeus last year when she said his testimony required "the willing suspension of disbelief." But Clinton renewed her call for a "carefully planned withdrawal." Sen. Barack Obama tempered his tone as well: "I'm not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way," he said. "I'm trying to get to an endpoint."

Both Democratic candidates have tempered their withdrawal plans as expert analysts have become surge converts. Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker testified before joint congressional committees one week after a similar panel heard testimony from Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Biddle told the committee about the "bottom-up" success of localized ceasefire agreements in the wake of the surge.

Disaffected militants have switched sides and become pro-U.S. security militias, beginning in Anbar province and contributing to the dramatic reduction in violence. "They receive recognition as legitimate security providers in their districts, a pledge that they will not be fired upon by U.S. or Iraqi government forces as long as they observe their end of the agreement, and a U.S.-provided salary of $300 per member per month," Biddle said.

Biddle told WORLD that the surge was a significant factor. Before 2007 Sunni militants who wanted to change sides were attacked by al-Qaeda in Iraq and forced back. "The availability of protection by Americans was a big change. It would not have been enough alone but it was necessary," he said.

"If you think of our two options-staying to fight or getting out-as balanced on a scale, events since July 2007 have added weight to the case for staying as opposed to the case for leaving," he said. That conclusion follows the February report of Middle East expert Anthony Cordesman, also a war critic, who noted "major progress in every area" and said, "There is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a secure and stable state."

Is Biddle more optimistic also? "Yes, I am more hopeful than in July 2007," he said.

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