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Here's the narrow line that General David Petraeus is walking. He's working to persuade Congress that the war in Iraq is going well enough that they shouldn't pull the troops the troops home, yet he also needs to persuade Congress that the war is still tough enough that they shouldn't pull the troops home.
The commander in Iraq is sending home some forces over the next few months, but after this summer General Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker want to keep their options open. NPR's Guy Raz reports on Congressional testimony that continues today.
GUY RAZ: Right now about 4,000 U.S. troops are being withdrawn from Iraq each month. They're known as the surge brigades - additional units that were sent to Iraq last year to beef up the U.S. military presence. And General Petraeus now recommends...
General DAVID PETRAEUS (U.S. Army): That upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45 day period of consolidation and evaluation.
RAZ: A period, he says, to decide whether fewer U.S. troops in Iraq can maintain stability. It'll leave roughly 140,000 troops in the country after the summer.
But under questioning from Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, Petraeus refused to say how long that period of consolidation and evaluation will last.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Could it be as long as three months?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Sir, it could be.
Sen. LEVIN: Okay. That's all I'm asking.
Gen. PETRAEUS: It is when the conditions are met.
Sen. LEVIN: I understand. But I'm just asking you a direct question. Could that be as long as three months?
Gen. PETRAEUS: It could be, sir.
Sen. LEVIN: Could it be as long as four months?
Gen. PETRAEUS: Sir, it is when the conditions are met.
RAZ: Later in the day, Indiana Republican Richard Lugar echoed Levin's frustration. He called the period of evaluation an open-ended commitment.
Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient.
RAZ: Petraeus told two Senate panels - the Armed Services Committee and later the Foreign Relations committee - that he believes Iraq is moving in the right direction, that a substantial withdrawal now would bring about a total collapse there.
Gen. PETRAEUS: A failed state in Iraq would pose serious consequences for the greater fight against al-Qaida, for regional stability, for the already existing humanitarian crisis in Iraq and for the efforts to counter malign Iranian influence.
RAZ: Few people doubt Iran's influence among Iraq's Shiite majority. The question is whether that influence is insidious. Both Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker insist it is. Here's Ryan Crocker.
Mr. RYAN CROCKER (Ambassador): Iran continues to undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government to establish a stable, secure state through the arming and training of criminal militia elements engaged in violence against Iraqi security forces, coalition forces and Iraqi civilians.
RAZ: But many senators cast doubt on whether Iraq's government also sees it that way. Here's California Democrat Barbara Boxer.
Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Ahmadinejad was the first national leader to be given a state reception by Iraq's government. I'm saying after all we have done, the Iraqi government kisses the Iranian leader and our president has to sneak into the country.
Mr. CROCKER: Senator, Iran and Iranian influence in Iraq is obviously an extremely important issue for us. But it's very much, I think, a mixed bag.
RAZ: Some polls now suggest that more than 70 percent of the American public believes the invasion of Iraq was a mistake. And Ohio Republican George Voinovich actually raised that point.
Senator GEORGE VOINOVICH (Republican, Ohio): Do you understand that? That that's where we're at. And the American people have had it up to here.
RAZ: Petraeus and Crocker acknowledge the public discontent, but they also insisted that despite the human and financial toll of the war, the effort is worth it.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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