Petraeus Hearing a Campaign Stop for Candidates

Among the senators who grilled Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Tuesday was the next president of the United States. Whether that president will be Hillary Clinton, John McCain or Barack Obama hasn't been decided, but all three of the White House hopefuls made Tuesday's hearings on Capitol Hill a kind of campaign stop.

Even before McCain took his seat as the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee was on Capitol Hill proclaiming his support for a war that most Americans wish was long over. He was at an early morning rally outside the Capitol of a group calling itself Vets for Freedom, made up of about 200 Iraq war veterans.

"I think your presence here today indicates that the overwhelming majority of veterans who have served and sacrificed in this conflict know that there is no substitute for victory and withdrawal is defeat," he said.

Later, in his opening statement, McCain sounded as though he were describing his own political near-death odyssey last year as a presidential contender: "We've come a long way since early 2007 and quite a distance, even, since Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker appeared before our committee last September."

But of course what McCain really meant was that a disputed strategy he had strongly endorsed — last year's U.S. troop expansion in Iraq known as the surge — is now widely accepted as having been, at least militarily, a success.

"This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment when they are succeeding," he said.

In case that barb against the two Democrats who want to be commander in chief flew by too fast, McCain had another: "The promise of withdrawal of our forces regardless of the consequences would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership."

Clinton, as the junior Democratic senator from New York, had a long wait before it was her turn to speak at the Armed Services hearing. She began with a response to what she called "some statements and suggestions that have been made leading up to this hearing and even during it."

"That it is irresponsible or demonstrates a lack of leadership to advocate withdrawing troops from Iraq in a responsible and carefully planned withdrawal — I fundamentally disagree," she said. "Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again."

Clinton had a policy prescription of her own for Iraq, one she has made many times on the campaign trail. "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 America."

Later, at the Foreign Relations committee hearing, Obama had no presidential rivals to contend with. Florida Democrat and Clinton supporter Bill Nelson surprised Chairman Joe Biden by saying he would let Obama jump ahead of him in the speaking order.

Obama was respectful but blunt. Striking a stance similar to Clinton's, he told Crocker he agreed with the ambassador's own words that increased pressure in a measured way could bring about needed political change in Iraq.

"I think the increased pressure in a measured way, in my mind — and this is where we disagree — includes a timetable for withdrawal," he said. "Nobody's asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure and a diplomatic surge that includes Iran."

It comes down to a question, Obama said, of what constitutes success in Iraq:

"The problem I have is if the definition of success is so high — no traces of al Qaida and no possibility of reconstitution; a highly effective Iraqi government; a democratic, multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian, functioning democracy; no Iranian influence, at least not of the kind that we don't like — then that portends the possibility of us staying for 20 or 30 years."

Obama said what's really achievable in Iraq may be a messy, sloppy status quo.

Petraeus, Crocker Warn Iraq Progress Is Reversible

A map showing a decline in activity in Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq by Al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents was among the charts Gen. David Petraeus presented to the Senate committee Tuesday. Senate Armed Services Committee hide caption

See the Charts
itoggle caption Senate Armed Services Committee

The Petraeus Report

In September, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, testified before Congress about progress in the so-called troop "surge" strategy. The much-anticipated report adds fuel to the debate on whether to begin drawing down troops or approve more funding for the war. Explore coverage of his 2007 testimony.

The Toll of War in Iraq: U.S. Casualties and Civilian Deaths

Chart U.S. military casualties and civilian deaths in Iraq month by month against key events in the war — and hear about the lives of those who died fighting.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told a Senate panel on Tuesday that American and Iraqi forces had made great strides toward the goal of bringing security to the country, but called for an open-ended suspension of troop withdrawals that he said could jeopardize progress.

Speaking to the Senate Armed Service Committee, the Iraq war commander told lawmakers that there had been "significant but uneven security progress" in Iraq since the so-called surge strategy put 30,000 more soldiers on the ground in Iraq.

He cited a marked decrease in the number of U.S. and Iraqi deaths since the surge, but warned that an upsurge of sectarian violence in recent weeks showed that the progress made was "fragile and reversible."

Petraeus recommended a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" once the extra combat forces that President Bush ordered to Iraq last year have completed their pullout in July.

"At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions," he said.

"Since September, levels of violence and civilian deaths have been reduced substantially. Al-Qaeda Iraq and a number of other extremists elements have been dealt serious blows," he told lawmakers.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker spoke to the political stability in Iraq, saying the White House's troop plans in Iraq would not "tie the hands of the next administration."

He also pointed to progress made by the government of President Nouri al-Maliki, adding that continued U.S. support was vital.

"This does not mean that U.S. support should be open-ended," he said.

The recent violence in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra, where Iraqi forces have taken the lead against Shiite militiamen, showed "there is still very much to be done" to stabilize the situation, but "when viewed with a broader lens, the Iraqi decision to combat these groups in Basra has major significance."

"Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustrating slow, but there is progress," Crocker said. "Sustaining that progress will require continuing U.S. resolve and commitment."

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has expressed solidarity with the Bush administration's desire to stabilize U.S. troop levels at 140,000 after July's withdrawal, spoke before Petraeus.

McCain was careful to distinguish his support for last year's surge strategy from the previous "four years of mismanaged war."

A year after the surge, however, McCain said, "We're no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can look ahead to the prospect of success."

McCain's statement was briefly interrupted by spectators. Later, a gallery observer interjected "bring them home!" during a question to Petraeus.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, who questioned both Petraeus and Crocker, called for an "orderly" withdrawal of troops. She praised U.S. forces as "the best in the world" but said the costs of the war in lives and money were placing an undue burden on the nation.

"The longer we stay in Iraq, the longer we divert challenges from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world," she said.

Clinton acknowledged "the very difficult dilemma that any policy in Iraq poses to leaders," but said that Iraqi leaders had consistently failed to deliver on promises of progress.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Petraeus and Crocker appeared Tuesday afternoon. Obama pressed them on their standard for success in Iraq. Obama said he worries that the goals — completely eliminating al-Qaida and Iranian influences — may be impossible to achieve and troops could be there for 20 or 30 years in a fruitless effort.

"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaida base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," Obama said.

Sen. Richard Lugar said "appealing for more time to make progress was insufficient" and that the U.S. needs a "definable, political strategy that recognizes the time limitations we face and seeks a realistic outcome designed to protect American vital interests." Lugar, of Indiana, is the Foreign Relations Committee's ranking Republican.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who chairs the panel, asked Petraeus to estimate on a scale of one to 10 how close the U.S. is to being able to significantly reduce forces in Iraq. Petraeus said, "I think we're in a six or a seven, or somewhere along there."

Biden responded: "I can't think of any circumstance where you fellows are likely to recommend no matter how bad things got where you would withdraw. But I may be mistaken. That's part of everyone's concern."

In Iraq, Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened on Tuesday to end a cease-fire he imposed on his militia last August, raising the prospect of further violence.

Despite the cease-fire, Sadr's followers have clashed with Iraqi government troops and U.S. forces in the south of the country and Baghdad in recent weeks, leading to Iraq's worst violence since the first half of 2007.

From staff and wire reports

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