The Times – How General Petraeus led Iraq out of its darkest moment<br/> But the Washington consensus of cutting troop numbers puts the gains of the surge at risk, by Rosemary Righter

When he assumed overall command in Iraq in February 2007, General David Petraeus described the situation as “hard but not hopeless”. It is important to remember that, in that grim time, his assessment ranked as cock-eyed optimism – not least in Washington.

Two battles were raging in Iraq, with both American and Iraqi casualties horrifyingly high and shooting upwards. Lethal attacks by insurgents or al-Qaeda on coalition forces averaged 180 a day, while Iraq’s Sunni and Shia communities were simultaneously tearing at each other’s guts. In parts though not all of Iraq, death squads roamed at will, kidnapping, torturing and killing in an orgy of sectarian violence that sundered neighbourhoods and had families cowering in terror behind barred doors. On General Petraeus’s first day touring Baghdad, 55 corpses lay decomposing in the streets, victims of sectarian killings. The national daily average of civilian deaths had topped 80.

His mission was to implement the new strategy announced by George Bush the previous month: a surge deployment of five extra army brigades and three Marine units, aimed at reducing violence enough to create space for the economy to revive and political reconciliation to begin. That mission, tough enough in itself, was all but friendless back home in Washington.

President Bush had ordered the surge in the teeth of opposition from the Pentagon’s top generals and the State Department. In Congress, not only Barack Obama (more troops would worsen the violence) but Republicans such as Senator Chuck Hagel (it would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”) were loudly against, and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group had echoed public opinion in arguing for a strategy of “managed failure” to camouflage a speedy US withdrawal – with Senator Joe Biden further arguing that partition was Iraq’s inevitable and even desirable fate. John McCain’s backing for the surge looked like sinking his bid for the presidency.

This week General Petraeus handed over command to his stalwart deputy, General Ray Odierno, with thanks to American and the much improved Iraqi forces for turning hard but not hopeless into “hard but hopeful”, and this time was hailed for his modesty. Incontrovertibly, Iraq on his watch has pulled back from the precipice.

Wonderful. Now we can give all the fruits of our labour over to the Chinese, who have done so much to make the world a more dangerous place for us to do their dirty work in.

General Petraeus, however, no more does modesty than he does cock-eyed optimism. If he says that progress is fragile and still reversible, he must be taken seriously. It would be as big an error to declare the surge a “success”, as Mr Obama has abruptly found it expedient to do, as it was to oppose it in the first place, if doing so is a prelude to cutting American troop strengths in Iraq rapidly and “moving on”. This is perilously close to being the new Washington consensus.

Oh good. Hold on there, China, there’s still some room for our politicians to screw everything up.