WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, said on Thursday he expected to make further troop cuts after a 45-day freeze in withdrawals that begins in July.
Petraeus also told senators considering his nomination to the U.S. military’s top Middle East post that Iran was a destabilizing influence in the region. But he backed U.S. efforts to use diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran, saying military action was a last resort.
Petraeus also endorsed U.S. intelligence estimates that al Qaeda leaders are based in tribal areas of Pakistan and any future attack on the United States was likely to originate there. He pledged more help for Pakistan’s government.
Following a tour in Iraq marked by a steep decline in violence, Petraeus is slated to take over U.S. Central Command, responsible for military operations in an unstable swath of the world including the Middle East, Central Asia and East Africa. He has been in his current post since February 2007.
Petraeus is overseeing a reduction in U.S. forces in Iraq to leave around 140,000 troops there by mid-July. He said he expected to recommend resuming withdrawals after taking stock until around the beginning of September.
“My sense is that I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for some further reductions,” he said, although he could not predict the size of any further troop cut.
The United States has some 155,000 troops in Iraq, more than five years after the start of a war which is now broadly unpopular with the U.S. public and is likely to be a key issue in the presidential and congressional elections this November.
At the U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg base in North Carolina, President George W. Bush defended his decision to invade Iraq.
“The terrorists and extremists are on the run and we are on our way to victory,” he said.
Also on Thursday, the U.S. Senate passed an additional $165 billion in spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would take the total spent on the conflicts to more than $800 billion, most of it for Iraq.
Petraeus appeared in the Senate with his former No. 2, Army Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, who has been nominated to replace him in Baghdad.
Petraeus told senators that last week saw the lowest number of security incidents in Iraq in more than four years and this week’s figure looked likely to be lower still.
Despite the advances, Petraeus and Odierno reported some key political and security goals were slipping.
Provincial elections were more likely in November than the scheduled date of October 1 and a target of handing the remaining nine provinces controlled by U.S. forces to Iraqi authorities by the end of the year would not be met, they said.
“I will not say we are out of the woods yet but I would say we are clearly headed in the right direction,” Odierno said of the prospects for stability in Iraq.
Addressing issues in the broader region he is expected to oversee, Petraeus said the United States already had major programs to help Pakistan fight insurgents but suggested a broad review of those efforts was needed.
“I think that the key need is to assess whether the overall concept that is guiding those, on the Pakistani side in particular of course, is adequate or not,” he said, adding one of his first trips as Central Command chief would be to Pakistan.
On Iran, he said the United States should seek to apply pressure on a government which Washington accuses of trying to develop a nuclear bomb and helping Shi’ite militants attack U.S. troops in Iraq.
“At the same time, we should retain, as a last resort, the possibility of a range of military actions to counter Iran’s activities,” he said.
Iran says its nuclear program is only intended for power generation and blames violence on Iraq on the presence of U.S. troops there.
Before Petraeus faced questions, protesters held up pictures of children and shouted: “Look at the children of Iran, Gen. Petraeus!” and “Please get us out of Iraq and don’t attack Iran!”
Additional reporting by David Morgan and Kristin Roberts in Washington and Tabassum Zakaria at Fort Bragg; Editing by Jackie Frank