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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

On Capitol Hill today, it was the retired generals' turn to address what has become the big issue before Congress - President Bush's plan to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq. And what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee heard from those generals seems unlikely to win over any of the plan's many skeptics.

NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA: As the four retired generals face the foreign relations panel, Illinois Democrat Barack Obama rose in the Senate chamber to propose capping the number of U.S. troops in Iraq and to push for a phased withdrawal of the ones already there.

BARACK OBAMA: The president has offered no evidence that more U.S. troops will be able to pressure Shia, Sunni and Kurds for the necessary political settlement, and he's attached no consequences to his plan should the Iraqis fail to make progress.

WELNA: At the hearing, Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel pressed Obama's point in an exchange with former South-Com Commander General Barry McCaffrey.

CHUCK HAGEL: We're threatening consequences. What are the consequences? There are none.

WELNA: There is little McCaffrey added that the U.S. can do short of leaving.

BARRY MCCAFFREY: If you're not equipping their military forces, you can't stop equipping them. If there is no peace dialogue to be enforced or encouraged with our good offices, you're left with 15 Army and Marine combat teams fighting among 27 million angry Arabs. I personally think in the short run, the current strategy is nonsensical.

WELNA: General Jack Keane, a former Army vice chief of staff, was also skeptical, particularly about plans to put Iraqis in the lead for military operations in Baghdad. Still, Keane said by first pacifying the mixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods, Prime Minister Nouri al-Malaki might build up enough trust to use political rather than military means to deal with the notorious Shiite militias at Sadr City.

JACK KEANE: And it would seem to me he has leverage over them at a minimum to get them to pull back from offensive operations. It would be too ambitious to think he could begin to disarm them at that point, because then I cannot buy that. But at least to stop offensive operations, pull back behind these barricades. He gets political leverage to do that. That is worth a try.

WELNA: General William Odem was far more skeptical of the plan. He told senators the biggest source of instability in Iraq is, paradoxically, the presence of U.S. forces there.

WILLIAM ODEM: You have to come back, bite that bullet and understand that withdrawal from Iraq now on some responsible phased schedule, but a serious and irreversible schedule, is the only thing would change the polarity of the situation to give this president an opportunity to design a strategy that has some prospect of victory.

WELNA: But General McCaffrey said based on his conversations with Bush administration officials, such a withdrawal was not in the cards.

MCCAFFREY: We're going to try to muscle this thing out in the next 24 months with an urban counterinsurgency plan that I personally believe, with all due respect, is a fool's errand.

WELNA: Beyond Iraq, senators also wanted to know if there is anything to growing talk of a possible U.S. attack on Iran. Former U.S. Cent-Com Commander General Joseph Hoar would not dismiss that possibility.

JOSEPH HOAR: I don't know why you have two carrier battle groups in the Gulf when fixed wing air, while an essential part of any campaign, doesn't require a lot of airplanes on a day to day basis. And why you would have an admiral in charge of Cent-Com when you had two essentially ground combat operations going on in two separate campaigns would all indicate to me that there's something moving right now towards Iran.

WELNA: Committee Chair Joseph Biden said he plans to redraft use of forced legislation to make clear it does not authorize an attack on Iran.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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