The top US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, faced a tough challenge on Tuesday from both Republicans sceptical about war strategy and Democrats who want a swifter withdrawal of American troops.The bipartisan grilling of Petraeus and US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker in Congress raised questions about whether President George W. Bush could count on enough of his Republican colleagues for help in staving off Democratic demands for a faster pullout.
Bush is expected to give a speech later this week on Iraq but has shown no signs of ordering drastic troop withdrawals.
Petraeus insisted progress was being made under Bushâ€™s strategy of temporarily building up troops this year to allow time for political reconciliation, an approach which is being strongly challenged in Washington.
â€œThough we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time,â€ Petraeus told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, asked: â€œAre we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate weâ€™re doing now? For what? The president said, â€˜Letâ€™s buy time.â€™ Buy time? For what?â€
Many tens of thousands of Iraqis and more than 3,700 US troops have died since the war began in 2003. Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the committee, told Petraeus that Bushâ€™s troop increase â€œmust not be an excuse for failing to prepare for the next phase of our involvement in Iraq, whether that is partial withdrawal, a gradual redeployment or some other option.â€
Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, one of eight candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, said progress in Iraq had been only modest under the buildup of 30,000 extra troops ordered by Bush in January.
â€œWe have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation, to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006, is considered success. And itâ€™s not,â€ he said. â€œThis continues to be a disastrous foreign policy mistake.â€
Obama also complained that the hearing was taking place on the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. He said it perpetuated â€œthis notion that somehow the original decision to go into Iraq was directly related to 9/11.â€
Petraeus repeated his plan – outlined on Monday – to gradually pull out the extra forces and bring troop levels back down to about 130,000 by next summer.
But Petraeus said he could not predict how quickly troop levels would fall after the summer and his force should still protect the Iraqi population, not focus solely on handing over to Iraqi forces and conducting counter-terrorism missions.
As during his testimony to House of Representatives committees on Monday, he was interrupted several times by shouts from anti-protesters.
â€œHundreds of thousands of people dead – isnâ€™t that enough for your blood thirst?â€ one smartly dressed man shouted before he was taken out of the room. Capitol Hill police arrested 10 protesters during Mondayâ€™s hearing and two on Tuesday.
All 10 arrested on Monday, including prominent anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan, were released with disorderly or unlawful conduct charges pending.
The chairman of the foreign relations committee, Senator Joseph Biden, who is also a Democratic presidential hopeful, said the US effort in Iraq was doomed because the countryâ€™s leaders were not committed to reconciliation.
â€œThe American people will not support an infinite war whose sole remaining purpose is to prevent the situation in Iraq from becoming worse than it is today,â€ the Delaware senator said.
Some analysts believe Petraeusâ€™ plan, although it only takes troop numbers back to their level at the start of this year, may be enough to dissuade Republicans from siding with Democrats to force a quicker and deeper drawdown.
Iraqâ€™s government on Tuesday welcomed Petraeusâ€™ testimony and said it would have less need for foreign forces to carry out combat operations soon. â€œWe expect in the near future that our need will be diminished for the multinational forces to conduct direct combat operations,â€ Iraqi national security adviser Mowaffaq Rubaie said.
Underlining their continued leading combat role, US forces targeting an Al Qaeda network in northwest Iraq killed eight suspected insurgents on Tuesday, the US military said.
US troops killed another 15 insurgents around Baghdad. The powerful political movement loyal to anti-American Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr dismissed the generalâ€™s arguments and demanded a timetable for a full withdrawal.