WASHINGTON — Spurning appeals for continued U.S. troop withdrawals, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq ran headlong into a central dispute of the war during a daylong session before Congress on Tuesday: whether deeper cuts would force the Iraqi government to finally take charge or lead it to collapse.
As expected, back-to-back Senate committee hearings spotlighting Army Gen. David H. Petraeus became a confrontation between two immovable forces. But there was no real decision at stake: President Bush is expected Thursday to endorse Petraeus' recommendation for a suspension of withdrawals in July, insisting that security gains over the last 15 months can lead toward a sustainable future, with continued U.S. help.
Speaking for hour after hour in his professorial monotone, Petraeus pressed that case, colliding repeatedly with an entrenched view among Democrats that Iraq's time to become more self-sufficient had arrived, and that troop withdrawals could help bring it about.
For Petraeus, the stakes of his second high-profile congressional appearance were not as steep as they were during his first seven months ago, when a prolonged period of intense violence nearly pushed Congress to seek a quick exit. The general's September performance is credited with calming the jitters. This time around, the four-star commander, again with an array of charts and graphs, made his case before lawmakers whose partisan positions had hardened during months of intense presidential campaigning, and he appeared to sway fewer opinions.
Democrat after Democrat, including the party's two remaining presidential contenders, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, questioned whether the costs of the strategy proposed by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who also testified, were too high.
Petraeus, who notably stumbled in September when asked whether the war in Iraq was making America safer, this time insisted the U.S. had vital interests in the country that must be addressed to avoid risking its own safety and security.
"The seeds of a nascent democracy have been planted in an Arab country that was the cradle of civilization," Petraeus said. "And though the germination of those seeds has been anything but smooth, there has been growth."
Petraeus' case was complicated by the recent outbreak of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in southern Iraq, which has spilled over into once-peaceful neighborhoods in Baghdad. But he asserted that although the new fighting proved that security gains were "fragile and reversible," stability has improved markedly since his previous appearance before Congress.
By keeping force levels at 140,000 into the autumn -- a few thousand more than before Bush announced the troop buildup in January 2007 -- U.S. officials can build on recent gains and the Iraqi government can gradually take over responsibility, he argued.
"This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable," he acknowledged. "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."
Petraeus refused to specify what might take place following a recommended 45-day suspension in troop reductions. Under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the general said withdrawals could resume almost immediately if security gains proved enduring -- or could be delayed by three or four months, depending on conditions.
That answer led Democrats to accuse Petraeus of advocating an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces. Clinton and Obama both took up the argument, though in significantly different ways.
Clinton re-emphasized points she and Democrats had made before: that even with security gains, the Iraqi government has proved incapable of political reconciliation, and that U.S. troops tied down in Iraq are needed elsewhere.
"I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront Americans," the New York senator said during the morning hearing before the Armed Services Committee.
Obama, on the other hand, argued that both Petraeus and Crocker were setting the bar for success too high, making it nearly impossible to ever achieve goals or withdraw troops.
During the afternoon hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, the Illinois senator argued for consideration of more limited goals: an Iraqi government that could contain if not eradicate Sunni Arab radicals and could hold its own against Iranian influences, if not expel them.
"When you have finite resources, you've got to define your goal tightly and modestly," Obama said.