The top US commander in Iraq told Congress on Tuesday he plans to stop US troop withdrawals in July due to fragile security gains in a progress report with repercussions on the US presidential campaign.
A recent increase in violence – including the deaths of 11 American service personnel in the past 48 hours – has thrust Iraq back to among the top concerns of war-weary American voters looking ahead of the November election.
Gen David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that despite an improvement in security in parts of Iraq "the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain."
He said the progress made since last spring is "fragile and reversible" and that an Iraqi operation to tackle Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Basra was a disappointment, not adequately planned or prepared.
Petraeus said he had recommended a 45-day halt in July to a series of troop withdrawals in order to judge developments on the ground and a subsequent assessment period to determine whether security is sufficient to bring more home.
The United States now has 160,000 troops in Iraq. Under plans announced last year, the Pentagon is pulling five combat brigades – or about 20,000 troops – out by mid-July, bringing the force level down to what it was before the troop increase.
The end result is that tens of thousands of US troops could still be in Iraq until President George W Bush leaves office in January 2009, leaving the US presence to the next president to handle.
Petraeus' plan to stop troop withdrawals drew a rebuke from the committee chairman, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. He called it "an open-ended pause" that would represent "the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy."
Levin demanded to know how many US troops would be in Iraq at the end of 2008.
"Sir, I can't give you an estimate," said Petraeus, the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, at his side.
Among those questioning Petraeus at the hearing were two presidential candidates, Arizona Sen John McCain, a strong supporter of the US presence in Iraq, and New York Democratic Sen Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to begin pulling troops out if elected in November.
Illinois Democratic Sen Barack Obama, a third candidate, was to face Petraeus later at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
McCain said he saw a genuine prospect of success in Iraq and warned that defeat could require US troops to return in a broader war.
"We're no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine process of success," McCain said.
But Massachusetts Democratic Sen Edward Kennedy said it was time to put the Iraqi government on notice that "our troops will not remain forever, so that they will take the essential steps to resolve their differences."
Connecticut Independent Sen Joe Lieberman, a McCain ally, shot back at the Senate war critics.
"It seems to me that there's a kind of 'hear no progress in Iraq, see no progress in Iraq,' and most of all, 'speak of no progress' in Iraq. The fact is there has been progress in Iraq," he said.
Protesters several times interrupted the proceedings, providing an edgy atmosphere inside a Capitol Hill hearing room packed with news media and onlookers.
"Bring them home!" shouted one demonstrator to scattered applause who was hustled out as Petraeus tried to speak.
Pressed by Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner whether the US sacrifice – 4,000 dead and billions of dollars spent – has been worth it, Petraeus said it has been.
"Senator, I do believe it is worth it, or I would not have, I guess, accepted – I mean, you do what you're ordered to do, but you sometimes are asked whether you would like to, or are willing to take on a task," he said.
In testimony to different committees over two days, Petraeus and Crocker will assess the uneven progress made in a year-long "surge" of force meant to create the calm for Iraqi politicians to advance legislation and factions to reconcile. (Reuters)
US commander halts troop withdrawals from Iraq