Gen. David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2008, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the status of the war in Iraq.
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WASHINGTON - The U.S. general commanding the Iraq war called Tuesday for an open-ended suspension of U.S. troop withdrawals this summer, asserting that an overly rapid withdrawal would jeopardize recent security gains.
Gen. David Petraeus told a Senate hearing that he recommends a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" once the extra combat forces that President Bush ordered to Iraq last year have completed their pullout in July. He did not commit to a timetable for resuming troop reductions after the 45-day pause.
"At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions," Petraeus said.
"This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit," he added. "This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable. However, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard a sacrificed so much to achieve."
The plan amounts to a conservative approach that gives Petraeus maximum flexibility at a time of rising violence in Baghdad and some others parts of the country. It runs counter to Democrats' push for a more rapid reduction in the U.S. military commitment and a faster transfer of responsibility to the Iraqi government.
Petraeus said his approach takes account of the fact that security gains achieved over the past year are fragile and reversible, and he said it is intended to "form a foundation for the gradual establishment of sustainable security in Iraq." But he did not say when he thought that goal would be reached.
"Withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year," Petraeus said.
Bush has said he intended to accept Petraeus' recommendation. On Thursday, the president will make a speech about the war, now in its sixth year, and his decision about troop levels.
Under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus said he could not predict when troop reductions would be resumed or how many U.S. troops were likely to remain in Iraq by the end of this year. There currently are 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the Pentagon has projected that when the scheduled troop withdrawals are completed in July there will be about 140,000 troops there.
Levin reminded Petraeus that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said a pause in troop reductions should be brief, and the senator said the Petraeus plan amounted to an open-ended suspension.
"What you've given to your chain of command is a plan which has no end to it," Levin said. He asked Petraeus when he would be in position to recommend further troop cuts, once the 45-day evaluation period ends in September.
"It could be right then, or it could be longer," the general said. He declined to be pinned down, saying he would recommend further cuts when conditions were right.
During the exchange with Levin, the hearing was briefly interrupted by one protester repeatedly shouting, "Bring them home!" The protester was removed from the hearing room by two members of the Capitol Police force.
Petraeus described the security situation in Iraq as improved since he last appeared before Congress in September, but still fragile and the gains reversible.
He complained of Iranian support for insurgents and asserted that withdrawing U.S. forces too quickly would jeopardize security gains achieved over the past year.
Petraeus also said the recent flare-up of violence in Basra, in Baghdad and elsewhere points up the importance of the cease-fire declared last year by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and highlighted the role Iran allegedly plays in funding and training Shiite militias through cells the U.S. military calls "special groups."
"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," Petraeus said.
Testifying beside Petraeus was Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, who echoed Petraeus' assessment of real but fragile security gains.
Crocker also focused on the violence in the southern city of Basra, where Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki dispatched Iraqi security forces to combat Shiite militias.
"Taken as a snapshot, with scenes of increasing violence, and masked gunmen in the streets, it is hard to see how this situation supports a narrative of progress in Iraq," Crocker said. "There is still very much to be done to bring full government control to the streets of Basra and eliminate entrenched extremist, criminal, and militia groups. When viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to combat these groups in Basra has major significance."
Crocker said a long-term agreement the U.S. is now negotiating with Iraq will give a needed legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. troops. Many in Congress have raised alarm about the agreement, and Democrats have accused the White House of trying to set troop levels or other elements of the Bush policy in stone ahead of the U.S. presidential election.
"The agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq, and we anticipate that it will expressly foreswear them," Crocker said. "The agreement will not specify troop levels, and it will not tie the hands of the next administration."
Instead, Crocker said, the U.S. negotiators want to make sure that the next U.S. president "arrives in office with a stable foundation upon which to base policy decisions."
The three major candidates for president Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. are on the committees for which Petraeus is providing testimony.