Iraq Testimony Prompts Frustration on Hill

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The two top U.S. officials in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, complete two days of Capitol Hill testimony on Iraq. The grim consensus: It's difficult to remain in Iraq ... and difficult to leave.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The words were the same, mostly, but the tone was grimmer. For eight hours yesterday, the two top U.S. officials in Iraq once again made their case. General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker brought their charts and their graphs and their positive message: Stay the course, give the strategy time to work.

Facing senators this time, the questions were tougher and the answers less certain.

NPR's Tom Bowman was there and has this report.

TOM BOWMAN: At the end of the day, there was almost a pall over the hearing room. A widespread sense emerged: It's difficult to remain in Iraq and difficult to leave. General Petraeus once again pointed to what he said was progress in tamping down violence. Democrats shot back there is no political progress.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): So the administration's message to Iraqi leaders continues to be that they're doing just fine.

BOWMAN: Senator Carl Levin of Michigan.

Sen. LEVIN: Well, that's the exact wrong message to send the leaders who doddle while their nation is torn apart by sectarian strife, and while their people are killed and forcibly ejected by sectarian militias, or killed if they refuse to be ethnically cleansed.

BOWMAN: The Democrats were not alone. A handful of frustrated Republicans joined them.

Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): Americans want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

BOWMAN: Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): 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?

BOWMAN: For the most part the Republicans are not ready to join the Democrats and press for deep troop cuts, or for timetables. Most Republicans point to the dangers of leaving Iraq too soon.

Here's John McCain of Arizona.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Make no mistake, consequences of American defeat in Iraq will be terrible and long lasting. There is in some corners a belief that we can simply turn the page in Iraq, come home, and move on to other things. This is dangerously wrong. If we surrender in Iraq, we will be back in Iraq and elsewhere, in many more desperate fights to protect our security, and at an even greater cost than American lives and treasure.

BOWMAN: But Democrats asked how many more soldiers' lives would be spent in Iraq. Petraeus has recommended that some of the 30,000 surge troops start coming home this year. The rest will be home by next summer, but that will still leave 130,000 American troops.

For his part, Ambassador Ryan Crocker said the surge has given the Iraqis the breathing space to reconcile, but he cautioned that the Iraqis lived for decades under Saddam Hussein.

Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): It's not just a switch that you flip that as the surge starts to make a real difference, at the beginning of the summer, that then everyone is prepared to sit down and make historic compromises. That is going to take time and effort. Will it succeed? How fast will it succeed? In what form will it succeed? I don't know.

BOWMAN: Despite the statistics showing a decrease in violence, there was a dismal sense of uncertainty. That led to this exchange between GOP Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Petraeus.

Senator SUSAN COLLINS (Republican, Maine): If a year from now the Iraqi government has still failed to achieve significant political progress, what do we do?

Gen. DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): That would a very, very difficult recommendation to make at that point in time because in the one hand we have very real national interests that extend beyond Iraq. On the other hand, there clearly are limits to the blood and treasure that we can expend in an effort.

BOWMAN: What are the limits? Neither man could say. Petraeus said he would return in March and recommend whether more American troops can come home.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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