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 yesterday: whether deeper troop cuts would force the Iraqi government to finally take charge or to collapse completely.
As expected, back-to-back Senate hearings spotlighting Army Gen. David Petraeus became a confrontation between two immovable forces. But there was no real decision at stake: President Bush is expected tomorrow to endorse Petraeus' recommendation for a suspension of withdrawals in July, insisting that security gains over the past 15 months can lead toward a sustainable future with continued U.S. help.
Speaking for hour after hour, 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 such report seven months ago, when a summer of unprecedented violence nearly produced a rush by Congress to quit Iraq. The general's September performance is credited with calming the jitters. This time, the four-star commander, with charts and graphs, made his case before lawmakers whose partisan positions had hardened, and he appeared to sway fewer opinions.
Democrat after Democrat, including presidential contenders Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, questioned whether the costs of the strategy proposed by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, who also testified, were simply too high.
Petraeus insisted that the United States has vital interests in Iraq that must be addressed to avoid risking its own security.
"The seeds of a nascent democracy have been planted in an Arab country that was the cradle of civilization," he 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 insisted that while 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 fall - about 5,000 more than before the troop buildup began - U.S. officials can build on recent gains and the Iraqi government can gradually take over responsibility, he said.
"This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable," he said. "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 be specify what might take place after a recommended 45-day suspension in troop reductions. Under questioning by Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus said withdrawals could resume almost immediately if security gains proved enduring - or could be delayed by three or four months, depending on conditions on the ground.
That answer led Democrats to accuse Petraeus of advocating an open-ended commitment of U.S. forces.
Clinton re-emphasized points she and Democrats have made before: that even with security gains, the Iraqi government has proven incapable of political reconciliation and that U.S. troops now 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," Clinton said during the morning hearing before the Armed Services panel.
Obama said 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, Obama argued for consideration of more limited goals: an Iraqi government that could contain if not eradicate Sunni radicals and could hold its own against Iranian influences, if not expel them.
Several Republicans questioned Petraeus' strategy with equal vigor, including Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. They were joined by Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a respected Republican on foreign policy issues, who questioned whether the Bush administration strategy seeks realistic outcomes and suggested that the White House must reconsider its policy.
"Simply appealing for more time to make progress is insufficient," Lugar said.
Still, Republicans mostly backed Petraeus' call for a pause in withdrawals. Among them were Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, who said the United States must continue to support Iraqi efforts.
"This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, the calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment we are succeeding," McCain said.
Although the clash over troop levels dominated both hearings, the role of Iran loomed almost equally large, with Petraeus stating that Iranian-backed "special groups" - radical elements with Shiite militias - pose the greatest long-term threat to Iraq's stability.
Peter Spiegel and Julian E. Barnes write for the Los Angeles Times.