Heavy-hitting US Democratic senators and Iraq war critics girded yesterday for a counter-attack against US General David Petraeus after he insisted on Monday that the current troop surge strategy was working.
A day after parrying attacks on US President George W. Bush's war policy before House of Representatives lawmakers, the talismanic war commander had a pair of potentially testy dates with powerful US Senate committees.
The confrontation was lent extra spice by the expected presence of White House hopefuls including Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who want to end the war, and outspoken Republican Senator John McCain.
Yesterday's hearings also took place on the politically sensitive sixth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Bush sees Iraq as the central front of the "war on terror," but Democrats view it as a diversion from the real fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
On Monday, in one of the most eagerly awaited congressional hearings in years, Petraeus appeared alongside US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and rejected claims that Bush's war plan was a failure.
"As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met," Petraeus said.
The rare joint hearing of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees opened an important week for US-Iraq policy in a four-year war that has killed more than 3,700 US troops and tens of thousands of civilians.
Democrats argued that the surge of 28,500 US troops had failed in its prime goal of driving political reconciliation in Iraq.
But the general warned that "a premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."
He said gradual troop withdrawals were feasible and would reduce troops to around pre-surge levels by the middle of next year.
A marine expeditionary unit of about 2,000 troops would leave Iraq later this month and not be replaced and an army combat brigade of about 4,000 troops will redeploy in December, he said.
The impact of reductions would effectively end the surge.
Before the surge debuted in February, around 130,000 US troops were in Iraq.
Military officials had previously acknowledged that continuing the surge after the middle of next year would be difficult because of the lack of available forces.