Leading article: The clear choice facing America

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The Independent Online

The appearance before two Senate committees of David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, had been the hottest ticket in Washington. He was to be quizzed on the state of this despoiled country and its prospects, five years after President Bush had hailed the felling of Saddam Hussein's statue as inaugurating a new, and infinitely better, age.

General Petraeus, as always, looked the part of the stern, ascetic military man. This time, though, his message was downbeat. He might be the author of the much-vaunted "surge", which reversed months of staged reductions in US troops, and this strategy might indeed have brought a fall in both military and civilian casualties. But he evinced little of the triumphalism that might have been expected for someone who, almost single-handed, had saved Mr Bush's political skin.

The news the general brought from Baghdad was not of victory, but of a long, hard slog, that would require many thousands of US soldiers for years to come. Disappointing many servicemen's families, he specifically warned against further troop withdrawals after July. He also admitted that the recent operation in Basra – in which British troops were briefly called back into the city to support Iraqis in combat – had been insufficiently prepared.

The Iraq that emerged from his account was an occupied land on the perilous brink between peace and war. A cynic might argue that General Petraeus's prime interest was to secure more funds for his operations, and that portraying everything as hunky-dory would not serve that end. But he seemed genuinely more concerned with the risks inherent in the current situation, where the incidence of violence is creeping up again – even Baghdad's "Green zone" is no longer impervious, and the long transition to the next President has begun.

Any election year introduces an element of uncertainty in Washington that only exacerbates any uncertainties abroad. This year's fiercely-fought contest compounds the sense of impermanence many times over. Victory for either Democrat in November could propel US Iraq policy in a sharply different direction. General Petraeus can be forgiven for not wanting to lead his troops out of Iraq, essentially in defeat, but – as Hillary Clinton pointed out in her contribution – what might be the responsible course to a general, looks like the height of irresponsibility if you regard current US Iraq policy as bankrupt and an unsustainable burden on US policy generally.

Both she and her Democratic rival, Barack Obama, used the Senate hearings to press for a timetable for withdrawal. When Americans go to vote in November, staying in or getting out of Iraq will be part of the admirably clear choice before them.