Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, warned in stark terms against the kind of rapid pullback favored by the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, in a day of testimony that drove home the continuing inability of the Democrats to force a change in strategy in Iraq.
The general’s appearance on Monday in the cavernous Cannon Caucus room, the scene of past confrontations between Congress and the White House, crackled at various points with partisan tension, and his testimony was interrupted repeatedly by shouting protesters who were quickly escorted from the room.
“The situation in Iraq remains complex, difficult and sometimes downright frustrating,” Petraeus said, as he began two days of highly anticipated appearances before Congress. “I also believe that it is possible to achieve our objectives in Iraq over time, although doing so will be neither quick nor easy.”
The hearings had been expected to provoke an epic confrontation between opponents of the war and its front-line leaders. But that conflict did not fully materialize on Monday, in part because only a few Democrats on two House committees seemed inclined to dispute with much vigor the assessments provided by a commander with medals on his chest and four stars on his shoulders.
Still, the proceedings put Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, in the unusual position of appealing directly to lawmakers for more time to allow their efforts to work, even as Democrats have made clear that they have little remaining faith in that strategy.
Petraeus said he believed that the United States was meeting most of its military objectives in Iraq. He said he had recommended to President Bush a timetable that would include withdrawal by next July, slightly ahead of schedule, of the nearly 30,000 additional troops that Bush has sent to Iraq since January.
But the general also warned that the situation in Iraq remained too fragile to undertake the major shift in mission and more rapid troop reductions that Democrats in the House and Senate have sought. The plan he outlined would still leave a main body of at least 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq next summer, and he said it would be premature to discuss a timetable for further withdrawals beyond those he outlined.
Though many lawmakers praised Petraeus’ service, several Democrats among a joint panel composed of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees dismissed his testimony as a White House publicity stunt.
In his testimony, Petraeus declared that his statements were his own, and had not been drafted or approved by the White House or the Pentagon. He will appear before two Senate committees on Tuesday, and Bush is expected to say in a speech later this week that he is accepting his top commander’s recommendations.
But Democratic leaders made clear that they intended to continue their fight. They pointed out that the recommendations from Petraeus embraced only modest adjustments in troop levels and no immediate strategy shift, even though the White House had built up the September review as a major re-evaluation of its Iraq policy.