WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats and President George W. Bush’s Republicans grilled the top U.S. commander in Iraq on Tuesday, questioning whether security gains were significant enough to keep U.S. troops in the war zone.
Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. 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.
Sen. 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 Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who last month urged Bush to send a message to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by withdrawing some U.S. 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 United States 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 United States had clear national interests in Iraq and achieving those interests had implications for U.S. security.
Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican who joined war critics in 2006, 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 accept Petraeus’ recommendation for a troop drawdown when he gives a speech on Iraq at 9 p.m. EDT on Thursday (0100 GMT on Friday). But he has shown no inclination to order drastic cuts in the 168,000 U.S. forces now in Iraq that Democrats have sought.
“It sounds to me as if Gen. Petraeus is presenting a plan for at least a 10-year, high-level U.S. 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 Americans “why our country should have to continue to make that commitment.”
Iraq’s government welcomed Petraeus’ testimony and said it would have less need for foreign forces to carry out combat operations soon.
“We expect in the near future that our need will be diminished for the multinational forces to conduct direct combat operations,” Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie said.
But senators criticized the Iraqi government for not achieving political benchmarks.
Asked by Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a 2008 presidential candidate, about his degree of confidence that the Maliki government will begin “to do the things that we’ve been asking them to do for a long time,” Crocker replied: “My level of confidence is under control.”
The ambassador 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 President Saddam Hussein’s Baath party from public service.
“These are modest achievements but I nonetheless find them somewhat encouraging,” he said.
Underlining their continued leading combat role, U.S. forces targeting an al Qaeda network in northwest Iraq killed eight suspected insurgents on Tuesday, the U.S. military said. U.S. troops also killed 15 insurgents around Baghdad.
The powerful political movement loyal to anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr dismissed Petraeus’ arguments and demanded a timetable for a full withdrawal.
Many tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 3,700 U.S. troops have been killed since the war began in 2003.
Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Andy Sullivan in Washington and Baghdad bureau