WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States cannot defeat the real threat to its security posed by al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan while it remains tied down in Iraq, Democrats told the top U.S. officials on Iraq on Wednesday.
In a second day of testimony to Congress, Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker said an increase of combat power had reduced violence and that Iraqi factions were moving, if slowly, toward reconciliation.
But Democrats said President George W. Bush, who began the war five years ago and who will leave office in January with more than 100,000 troops still there, was failing to focus on the bigger threat of al Qaeda from the Afghan-Pakistan border.
“Protecting this nation from direct attack is job number one, yet our allocation of forces does not match this imperative,” said Rep. Ike Skelton, chairman of the House of Representatives’ Armed Services Committee.
“The effort in Iraq, however important, is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us,” the Missouri Democrat said of al Qaeda.
In their war report, which coincided with the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion, Petraeus and Crocker said there had been political progress in Iraq under a temporary “surge” of U.S. forces but that advances were “fragile and reversible.”
Petraeus plans a halt to further force reductions in July for 45 days after which he would assess security conditions and consider more possible cuts. On Wednesday he said security in four or five areas might allow more troops to come home.
The Pentagon has 160,000 troops in Iraq after boosting the force by about 30,000 last year under a strategy aimed at reducing violence to create enough calm for Iraqi lawmakers to enact measures seen as critical to long-term stability.
While the build-up helped dramatically reduce attacks and casualties, violence has climbed again in recent weeks and the breathing space created by the troop increase did not produce all the political gains promised by Bush.
The Pentagon has begun to pull about 20,000 of the extra combat troops out, and has completed half of that withdrawal already. Once that reduction is finished in July, the U.S. force in Iraq will stand at about 140,000, officers have said.
While Democrats say the halt amounts to an open-ended commitment to Iraq, Petraeus on Wednesday said he could foresee further cuts, depending on security conditions. He did not estimate how many troops might be withdrawn or say when.
“We’re looking at four to five locations already that we have an eye on, looking to see if those conditions can be met there,” Petraeus told the House Armed Services Committee.
Even if the withdrawal continues later this year, the United States will likely have 130,000 troops, perhaps more, when Bush leaves office in January 2009.
Bush was to meet with members of Congress from both parties on Wednesday afternoon to discuss Iraq and to make a speech on the situation there on Thursday morning.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said: “We will have troops in Iraq after 2009, after (Bush) leaves office, and what the president is working to do is to make sure that he makes tough decisions now that can help make for a smooth transition when the next president takes over.”
U.S. officials have said Bush is expected to announce, perhaps as soon as Thursday, that U.S. soldiers’ tours in Iraq and Afghanistan will be cut back to one year from 15 months.
Additional reporting by David Morgan, Tabassum Zakaria and Andrew Gray
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