Petraeus grilled over strategy in Iraq

PIVOTAL: While the general said he didn't know whether his recommendations would make the US safer, Bush is today expected to announce a cut of 30,000 `surge' forces

AGENCIES , WASHINGTON

Thu, Sep 13, 2007 - Page 7

Democrats and US President George W. Bush's Republicans grilled the top US commander in Iraq on Tuesday, questioning whether security gains were significant enough to keep US troops in the war zone.

General David Petraeus and US Ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker insisted progress was being made under Bush's strategy of temporarily building up troops to allow time for Iraqi lawmakers to achieve political reconciliation.

But the bipartisan criticism directed at both men during congressional hearings raised questions about whether Bush could count on Republican colleagues for help in staving off Democrats' demands for a faster pullout.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican critic of the unpopular war, struck at the heart of Bush's justification for increased force levels, asking why troops should stay when their presence had failed to lead Iraqi politicians to make needed compromises.

"Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what? The president said, `Let's buy time.' Buy time? For what?" Hagel said.

Influential Republican Senator John Warner of Virginia, who last month urged Bush to send a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by withdrawing some US troops by Christmas, sounded deeply skeptical of current strategy.

"I hope in the recesses of your heart that you know that strategy will continue the casualties, the stress on our forces, the stress on military families, the stress on all Americans," he told Petraeus.

Warner asked if the general's recommendations would make the US safer -- a reference to Bush's argument that Iraq is a central front in the war on terrorism.

"Sir, I don't know, actually," Petraeus first replied, saying he was concentrating on his military mission in Iraq. When asked again by another senator, the general said the US had clear national interests in Iraq and achieving those interests had implications for US security.

Senator Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican who joined war critics last year, said Petraeus' testimony appeared to secure Republican support for Bush. He predicted any legislation that set a withdrawal deadline would not pass.

Petraeus repeated his plan -- outlined on Monday -- to gradually pull out the extra 30,000 "surge" forces and bring troop levels down to between 100,000 and 130,000 by next summer.

He said he could not predict how quickly troop levels would fall after the summer. He also argued his force should still protect the Iraqi people, not focus solely on handing over to Iraqi forces and conducting counterterrorism missions.

Bush is expected to announce that 30,000 soldiers could return home next year in a nationally televised speech today on the divisive issue of US troop levels in war-torn Iraq.

Bush is expected to say that the "surge" could be trimmed by July next year, when just six months remain of his presidency, leaving the next stage of the conflict up to his successor amid a heated race for the White House.

The US president has long vowed to base his decisions about Iraq on the recommendations of military leaders on the ground.

But more than four years after the US-led invasion, Americans see an Iraq gripped by violence, sectarian strife and political corruption -- far from the ideal model of democracy in the Middle East that Bush had touted.

Anger is also rising over the human and material cost of the war, with more than 3,700 US soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis killed since March 2003 and half a trillion dollars spent.

Sixty-one percent of nearly 2,700 US adults surveyed online last month by the Harris Poll group said they felt Bush was "too eager" when he sent US troops into Iraq in March 2003, while two-thirds gave Bush bad marks for his handling of the conflict over the past few months.

According to another poll by ABC News and the Washington Post, 55 percent want to see troops come home by next spring.

If Bush does not replace the 30,000 extra troops currently in Iraq as part of the "surge," he will not actually be reducing troop levels but only restoring them to the same level as this year's numbers.

The Washington Post yesterday cited unnamed White House aides as saying that Bush planned to emphasize that he was able to order troop cuts only because of the success achieved on the ground in Iraq, and that he was not being swayed by political opposition.

Bush has shown no inclination to order drastic cuts in the 168,000 US forces now in Iraq that Democrats have sought.

"It sounds to me as if General Petraeus is presenting a plan for at least a 10-year, high-level US presence in Iraq," House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after a White House meeting with Bush and other congressional leaders.

The California Democrat said she told Bush he should explain to US citizens "why our country should have to continue to make that commitment."

Crocker noted an effort by Maliki and other leaders to work out some national issues, including an announcement last month of agreement in principle on establishing provincial powers and on relaxing a ban on former members of the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's Baath party from public service.

"These are modest achievements but I nonetheless find them somewhat encouraging," he said.