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Petraeus, Crocker Push for Iraq Freeze in House

David Welna on 'Morning Edition'
Analysis: Steven Cook on 'The Bryant Park Project'

Democratic lawmakers grilled Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on the second day of congressional hearings, in which the pair is seeking to make the case for freezing any future withdrawal of U.S. troops from the conflict.

Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, Petraeus and Crocker largely reiterated their testimony from Tuesday, when they appeared before two Senate committees.

The questioning was divided along party lines, with Democratic Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri charging that the cost of the war in Iraq in terms of soldiers and resources had left the U.S. vulnerable to attack elsewhere.

"When looking at the needs in Afghanistan, the effort in Iraq - however important - is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us," Skelton said.

Republicans were considerably more optimistic about the situation in Iraq than last year.

"No one can deny that the security situation in Iraq has improved," said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the No. 1 Republican on the committee.

Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told lawmakers that security gains in the war zone are too fragile to promise further drawdowns.

"The situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain," he said.

Crocker said political and economic process in recent months has been significant, but added: "I must underscore, however, that these gains are fragile, and they are reversible."

On Tuesday, Crocker and Petraeus appeared before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, where they received support from presumptive Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain and difficult questions from Democratic hopefuls Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

In his testimony Tuesday, Petraeus declined to give any indication that more troops could leave Iraq this year, after the last of five brigades ordered into the country for last year's buildup have come home. About 140,000 U.S. troops, including 15 brigades, are expected to be in Iraq at the end of July, down from the roughly 160,000 there now.

Petraeus recommended a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" once those brigades come home — a span of time that would see little if any withdrawal.

The general cited a marked decrease in the number of U.S. and Iraqi deaths since the surge. But he warned that a new bout of sectarian violence in recent weeks showed that the progress made was "fragile and reversible."

The recent violence in Baghdad and the southern city of Basra — which has resulted in the deaths of at least 11 U.S. soldiers in combat since Sunday — showed "there is still very much to be done" to stabilize the situation, Petraeus said.

Echoing Petraeus' assessment, Ambassador Crocker said, "Immense challenges remain and progress is uneven and often frustratingly slow, but there is progress."

McCain, who has expressed solidarity with the Bush administration's desire to stabilize U.S. troop levels at 140,000 after July's withdrawal, was careful to distinguish his support for last year's surge strategy from the previous "four years of mismanaged war."

But, McCain said, one year after the surge, "We're no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can look ahead to the prospect of success."

Clinton, who questioned both Petraeus and Crocker, called for an "orderly" withdrawal of troops, praising U.S. forces as "the best in the world." But the costs of the war in lives and money were placing an undue burden on the nation, she said.

"The longer we stay in Iraq, the longer we divert challenges from Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world," Clinton said.

Obama serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Petraeus and Crocker appeared in Tuesday's afternoon session. Pressing the pair on their standard for success in Iraq, Obama worried that the goal of eliminating al-Qaida and Iranian influences was unachievable.

"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not huge outbreaks of violence — there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an al-Qaida base — that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," Obama said.

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