A Plea From Petraeus

Army Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the two top U.S. officials in Iraq, are in Washington this week to update Congress on the status of the Iraq war. Senate hearings on Tuesday gave three leading contenders for the White House a chance to question both Petraeus and Crocker and promote their approaches to the five-year-old war.
By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Army Gen. David H. Petraeus returned to Congress yesterday seeking more time to consolidate security gains in Iraq by halting withdrawals of U.S. forces this summer, all but guaranteeing that about 140,000 troops will remain at least through the fall presidential election.

During a day of hearings against the backdrop of a heated campaign for the White House, Petraeus called security in Iraq "significantly better" than before last year's troop buildup but still "fragile and reversible." He plans a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" after the reinforcements leave in July, followed by an indefinite period of assessment before any further drawdown.

The testimony before two Senate committees offered another marker in the nation's five-year-old engagement in Iraq and drew complaints from Democrats and some Republicans about a war that they said seems to have no end. President Bush made no comment on it yesterday but teared up at a White House ceremony awarding the Medal of Honor to a Navy SEAL who died in Iraq. He plans to address the nation tomorrow, when aides expect him to adopt Petraeus's plan.

"Withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year," Petraeus testified. In the face of skeptical questioning, he added later: "We have the forces that we need right now, I believe. We've got to continue. We have our teeth into the jugular, and we need to keep it there."

The appearances by Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker served as a sequel to their status report in September, delivered as Bush's troop buildup was starting to take hold. But this time, the hearings also provided a forum for the three presidential candidates to wage a proxy debate about the future of the war.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee, used one hearing to lambaste what he called the "reckless and irresponsible withdrawal" plans of his Democratic rivals, Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.). Clinton later fired back, suggesting it would be irresponsible to perpetuate "the same failed policy." Obama called again for a withdrawal timetable, saying the United States may have to accept "a messy, sloppy status quo" as long as there are not "huge outbreaks of violence."

The plan Petraeus outlined yesterday may renew the war debate at the height of the general-election campaign this fall. The last of the 20,000 combat troops Bush sent last year are due to leave Iraq by mid-July, so the 45-day consolidation period would last until early September. Petraeus repeatedly declined to say how long he would then need to decide whether to bring more troops out, but he would be deliberating in the weeks before Election Day.

Because it takes a couple of months to withdraw a combat unit once a decision is made, Petraeus's plan means no further significant troop drawdown would take place until November, at the earliest, and yesterday's testimony fueled suspicions about whether any major pullouts would happen during the remainder of Bush's presidency. Petraeus jousted with lawmakers all day to avoid being pinned down on how long the suspension of troop withdrawals would last. "I'm not using the word 'brief' nor the word 'pause,' " he said.

Petraeus and Crocker returned to Capitol Hill a day before the five-year anniversary of the fall of Saddam Hussein's monumental statue in Baghdad. Yet despite the declining violence of recent months and their upbeat report, they ran into deep doubts about the prospect for reconciliation among Iraqi factions.

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) noted a recent spate of American deaths, including in the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad. "There's, it seems to me, some disconnect in the abstraction that we're dealing with today," he said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) vowed to introduce legislation making additional reconstruction funding a loan for Iraq to repay.

"Isn't it time for Iraqis to bear more of those expenses?" asked Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine).

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