- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Sen. Barack Obama unleashed a litany of criticisms of the Iraq war at a hearing yesterday but barely got a question in when his turn came to interrogate Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

“This continues to be a disastrous foreign-policy mistake,” said Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, who, along with the chamber’s other presidential hopefuls, had an opportunity for posturing during hearings on the war.

The performance by Mr. Obama, who as his time was expiring resorted to asking a question posed earlier by other senators on the panel, contrasted with that of his chief Democratic rival for the presidential nomination, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

Mrs. Clinton concisely recounted “grim realities” of the sustained violence in Iraq and then asked Gen. Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, to clarify what she called his contradictory statements to the panel about whether he would recommend a pullout of troops if the situation in Iraq does not improve next year.

“General, don’t you think the American people deserve a very specific answer about what is expected from our country in the face of the failure of the Iraqi government to pursue its own required political agenda?” she said.

The general said he had not contradicted himself and that he would be “very hard-pressed” to recommend continued troop presence under those conditions.

Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut and Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona also weighed in at the hearings.

Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, spent more than nine hours before two Senate committees delivering a war assessment that included recommendations to withdraw 30,000 U.S. troops by spring and leave 130,000 troops to continue the mission in Iraq.

The general and the ambassador made a similar presentation Monday to House committees.

Mr. McCain, a staunch supporter of the war effort who is struggling to regain momentum for his presidential bid, commended the troop-surge plan ordered by President Bush.

“We must, as Gen. Petraeus intends, keep this strategy in place,” said Mr. McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, one of two Senate panels to hear the war report.

Mr. Obama took time to criticize Mr. Bush and the decision to go to war, a decision he opposed from the start but which Mrs. Clinton voted for in 2002.

“This is not to relitigate the original decision to go into Iraq,” said Mr. Obama, who was not in the Senate when the Iraq vote was taken in 2002. “It is to suggest that if the American people and the Congress had understood [the consequences], I think most people would have said, ‘That’s a bad deal.’ ”

As his time ran out, Mr. Obama asked what scenario would prompt Mr. Crocker to recommend a pullout, a repeat of a question by Sen. John E. Sununu, New Hampshire Republican.

“Senator, I described for Senator Sununu a little bit ago some of the things that I think are going to be very important as we move ahead,” Mr. Crocker said.

Mr. Obama asked him to repeat the answer, drawing an objection from a clock-watching Mr. Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee hearing the testimony.

“What is happening in Iraq is an ethno-sectarian competition for power and resources,” Mr. Crocker said. “That is simply the way it is. So the question is, is it played out violently or by other ways?”

Mr. Biden, who has proposed partitioning the country to separate Sunni, Shi’ites and Kurds prior to a U.S. troop withdrawal rather than a rapid pullout, challenged the general’s report of decreased sectarian violence.

The senator pointed to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last week that disputed Army statistics showing such a decrease.

Gen. Petraeus said the GAO findings were based on data that were at least five weeks old, compared with his report, which used statistics compiled up until Friday.

“That does [make] quite a significant difference,” he said.

Mr. Biden countered that U.S. troops and Iraqis still endure more than 1,000 attacks weekly.

“And we’re calling that success?” he said.

Mr. Dodd also raised doubts about the security gains, recounting a recent conversation he had at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with a soldier who lost an eye in Iraq.

“I asked him about the surge and how it was working,” he said. “He said to me, he said, ‘Senator, we’ll spend a month, a month and a half to clean out an area [and] an hour and a half after we leave … things are right back where they were before.’ ”

Mr. Dodd conceded that the soldier may have exaggerated.

“I don’t seem to get any indication — don’t get a feeling here — that there’s any real opportunity or optimism, that this is going to get better,” he said. “What makes you possibly believe that anything further like this [continued war] is going to produce the results that everyone else has failed to produce over the previous 4½ years?”

The general said he drew encouragement from the Iraqi government sharing oil revenue nationwide and granting conditional immunity to some former insurgents as they join the central government, despite the absence of laws codifying these actions.

“There are actions being taken that give you hope that they can indeed reconcile with one another, accommodate one another, and so forth,” he said.

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