Petraeus defies Democrats with call to back war

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The Independent US

The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, set himself on a collision course with the two Democratic contenders for the White House yesterday, asking for what amounted to an open-ended commitment to the war in Iraq. He warned that pulling out "too many troops too quickly" would jeopardise "fragile and reversible" security situation in the country.

General Petraeus said there had been "significant" but "uneven" improvements in security and said troop levels would need to be reassessed in the summer, by which time about 20,000 would be out. But he told the hearing to set the future US strategy in Iraq that he opposed further withdrawals and wanted "the flexibility to reserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve".

His comments were immediately criticised by the Democratic Senator Carl Levin who said the Bush administration now had "a war plan with no exit strategy". Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are publicly committed to a rapid withdrawal of American forces. But addressing the Senate Armed Services committee yesterday, General Petraeus recommended a pause in drawdowns after mid-July, when the five extra brigades sent to Iraq for the "surge" will be out.

By that stage, there will be 140,000 troops left in Iraq, in 15 combat brigades, after the "surge" troops have been withdrawn.

General Petraeus called for a 45-day period of "consolidation and evaluation" as soon as levels were back at pre-buildup numbers. He was reflecting concerns in the military that insurgents will try to take advantage of the political uncertainty in the US, and fears that Iraq could descend into even greater chaos before the US election and beyond.

During an afternoon hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Barack Obama quizzed General Petraeus and the US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. He said the US should set a timetable to pull its troops out of Iraq in order to pressure leaders there to establish peace.

"Increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind ... includes a timetable for withdrawal. Nobody's asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure," he said.

Mrs Clinton used her six allotted minutes to restate her now familiar position. "I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military, and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront Americans," she said to scattered applause.

The race for the White House loomed large as the Republican candidate, John McCain, said it would be "reckless and irresponsible" to have a rapid withdrawal, and that pulling troops out now would be "a failure of moral and political leadership".

A protester stood up with a banner saying, "There's no military solution", as Mr McCain spoke, and was ejected from the hearing. Mr McCain sharply criticised the Bush Administration's "four years of mismanaged war", saying it had brought the US "almost to the point of no return". But, in a familiar refrain, he said the extra armed forces send to Iraq, "led to a new opportunity".

No more than three more combat brigades are expected to be pulled out of Iraq before George Bush leaves office next January, leaving more than 100,000 troops in the country when the next US president is sworn in.

General Petraeus has acknowledged that the recent Basra operation by the Iraqi army "was not adequately planned or prepared" and added that there was a danger rebel Shia groups may violate the cease-fire order of Muqtada al-Sadr.