Tuesday, April 8, 2008

WASHINGTON — Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton today confronted Army Gen. David H. Petraeus about his recommendation to pause the drawdown of U.S. forces in Iraq, saying America was paying too high a cost for the open-ended military commitment.

Mrs. Clinton, who has pledged to start a pullout within 60 days if she is elected president, said that the ongoing deployment has sapped the U.S. military capabilities and that every time the war effort verges on success, “Iraqi leaders fail to deliver” political reconciliation.

“What condition would have to exist for you to recommend to the president that the present strategy is not working?” she asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “How are we to judge what the conditions should be?”

Gen. Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, said analysis of the political and security situation in Iraq was not a “mathematical exercise.”

Earlier, he warned lawmakers at the hearing that “fragile and reversible” security gains from the surge of U.S. troops in Iraq would be shattered by Democrats’ pullout plans. He recommended a pause to troop reductions in July and an assessment period to decide how to proceed.

The general told Mrs. Clinton that U.S. commanders and Iraqi leaders would have to assess the activity of enemy forces and the capabilities of the Iraqi forces before determining whether to recommend more U.S. troop reductions.

Gen. Petraeus testified with Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker today as part of a war report mandated by the Democrat-led Congress.

Democrats pushed for a pullout strategy, citing some of the same conditions that Gen. Petraeus used to support continued engagement in Iraq, including the ever-present threat of renewed fighting.

They questioned the general and the ambassador about the slow pace of political reform by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the oil-rich country’s failure to pay for the war or reconstruction.

The hearings also provided a platform for all three major presidential candidates to present their views on the Iraq war. Democratic front-runner Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois will have a chance to pose questions later today when the general and the ambassador appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

They appear tomorrow before House committees.

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain of Arizona said that the U.S. mission in Iraq is succeeding but that more time is needed to achieve the goal of a “peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic state that poses no threat to its neighbors and contributes to the defeat of terrorists.”

“This success is within reach,” Mr. McCain said, emphasizing that he does not want to keep U.S. forces in Iraq “one minute longer than necessary.”

“We must continue to help the Iraqis protect themselves against the terrorists and the insurgents. We must press ahead against al Qaeda, the radical Shi’a militias and the Iranian-backed [fighters],” he said. “This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, the calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment when they are succeeding.”

Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said President Bush had failed to hold the Iraqi government accountable, resulting in the high price paid by U.S. troops and taxpayers. He said a pullout was the answer.

“An announcement of an open-ended pause in troop reduction starting in July would simply send the wrong message to the Iraqi leaders,” the Michigan Democrat said. “Rather, we need to put continuous and increasing pressure on the Iraqis to settle their political differences, to pay for their own reconstruction with their oil windfalls and to take the lead in conducting military operations.”

He continued, “The way to do that is to adopt a reasonable timetable for a change of mission and redeployment of most of our troops, promptly shifting responsibility to the Iraqis for their own future, politically, militarily and economically is the best hope for a successful outcome in Iraq and represents finally an exit strategy for most of our troops.”

Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker warned against a rapid withdrawal.

“A failed state in Iraq would pose serious consequences for the greater fight against al Qaeda, for regional stability, for the already existing humanitarian crisis in Iraq and for the efforts to counter malign Iranian influence,” Gen. Petraeus said.

Mr. Crocker stressed the political advances by the Iraqi government but also warned of the ongoing threat from al Qaeda in Iraq.

“Al Qaeda is in retreat in Iraq, but it is not yet defeated,” he said.

The general said he recommended a continuation of the drawdown of combat forces deployed in the surge until July. Commanders then would undertake a 45-day period of “consolidation and evaluation” before starting an assessment process to determine plans for further troop reductions.

“This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit,” Gen. Petraeus said. “This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable, however, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still-fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve.”

The general’s recommendation is expected to result in about 140,000 troops in Iraq for at least six months. That force level would be about 10,000 more troops than before last year’s surge, which helped stifle insurgent and sectarian attacks.

The war issue has been eclipsed lately by the country’s economic downturn, prompting Democratic leaders to stress the war’s high price tag more than $500 billion today and estimated to reach $3 trillion in 10 years.

The Iraq issue is set to regain prominence next month as lawmakers debate the supplemental $102.5 billion request for 2008 war spending, which Democratic leaders plan to link to a pullout plan.

Democrats failed in repeated attempts last year to use war funds to force Mr. Bush to accept a pullout timetable, backing down each time from a standoff with the White House and preserving the war debate for the next president.

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