Petraeus: Iraq Security Improved, but 'Fragile and Reversible'

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) delivered an opening statement at the start of hearings on the war in Iraq. Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are testifying before the Senate. Video by AP
By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 8, 2008; 6:22 PM

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq told a Senate committee today that improved security in Iraq is "fragile and reversible" and recommended a pause in the withdrawal of U.S. forces after mid-July.

Under questioning from the Senate Armed Services Committee, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus repeatedly refused to forecast when a drawdown might resume or offer any estimates of future U.S. troop levels.

The hearing, followed by a separate appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, provided a forum for the three presidential candidates to demonstrate their command of the issues in Iraq and promote their approaches to the five-year-old war. In the Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a candidate for the Democratic nomination, sparred with each other indirectly via their opening statements and their questions to Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who leads Clinton in the race for their party's nomination, attended the Foreign Relations Committee hearing this afternoon and sought to pin down the two witnesses on a definition for success in Iraq that would allow U.S. forces to withdraw. Crocker and Petraeus agreed it was unrealistic to expect the complete eradication of al-Qaeda in Iraq or the elimination of all Iranian influence, but they balked at the idea of major force reductions if Iraq remained in what Obama called "the messy, sloppy status quo."

In his morning testimony, Petraeus said he has recommended to his superiors that the military continue rolling back a "surge" of U.S. forces that President Bush ordered last year in response to deteriorating security in Baghdad and other parts of Iraq. But after U.S. forces are reduced to their pre-buildup level by mid-July, Petraeus said, the military should suspend the withdrawals and begin a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation."

At the end of that period, he said, he has recommended starting "a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions." He strongly counseled against setting any deadlines for withdrawal.

"This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable," he said in his prepared statement. Instead, he said, it provides "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."

The Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), disputed Petraeus's generally optimistic assessment of the situation in Iraq and challenged him on his recommendation for a suspension of U.S. withdrawals.

"That is a clear open-ended pause," Levin told the general. "I think that this open-ended pause that you have recommended takes pressure off Iraqi leaders" to assume responsibility for their country's security, he said.

As Petraeus was answering Levin's questions, a demonstrator began shouting, "Bring them home!" The man was promptly escorted out of the hearing room.

Under questioning, Petraeus declined to specify the level he anticipates for U.S. troop strength in Iraq by the end of this year.

But Crocker made clear that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq beyond Dec. 31 and said the United States will need an agreement with Iraq to govern its presence after that date. He said the accord would not establish permanent bases in Iraq and probably would rule them out. Nor would it specify troop levels so as not to "tie the hands of the next president," Crocker said.

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