Petraeus wants troop drawdowns suspended

Washington_A leading Democrat has opened a key Iraq war hearing by saying a recent flare-up in violence in Baghdad raises questions about the military success of President Bush's troop buildup.

The statement was by Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Levin opened the first of four congressional hearings at which the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and the top U.S. diplomat in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, are providing their assessment of security and political conditions in Iraq and explaining the prospects for further U.S. troop withdrawals this year.

Before the hearing began Petraeus and Crocker chatted amiably with a number of committee members, including two of the three presidential candidates _- Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republican Sen. John McCain.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

WASHINGTON (AP) - The four-star general in charge of Iraq wants more time in a war that is now in its sixth year. Democrats say he's got until the November elections.

Gen. David Petraeus planned to testify Tuesday on the war for the first time in seven months. He was expected to tell two Senate committees that last year's influx of 30,000 troops in Iraq had helped calm some of the sectarian violence but that to prevent a backslide in security, troops would likely be needed in large numbers through the end of the year.

Under his proposal, as many as 140,000 troops could be in Iraq when voters head to the polls this fall.

Democrats contend that this approach guarantees an open-ended commitment to a $10-billion-a-month war as the economy at home is faltering. They say the lack of political progress made in Iraq, as well as the recent spike in violence in Basra, indicates the U.S. troop buildup has failed.

"We need a strategy that will clearly shift the burden to the Iraqis, that'll begin to take the pressure off our forces, begin to allow us to respond to other challenges in the region and worldwide," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Democrats also acknowledge that they are more or less helpless in trying to force President Bush's hand on the war. While anti-war legislation has been able to pass the House, it repeatedly sinks in the Senate, where Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural hurdles.

They contend, however, that come fall dissatisfied voters will head to the polls and put more Democrats in power, possibly including an anti-war president. In last month's Associated Press-Ipsos poll, only 31 percent said they approve of the job Bush is doing on Iraq.

Indeed, Tuesday's hearings are expected to be about as much as the presidential elections as they are about the state of Iraq. The three major candidates for president are on the committees for which Petraeus is providing testimony.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the No. 1 Republican on the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a member of the panel, are expected to use the morning committee hearing to showcase their opposing views on the war. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., will get his chance later that afternoon as member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

McCain, the senior Republican on the Armed Services panel, supports the war. He told an outdoor rally on the Capitol grounds Tuesday withdrawing troops would result in even greater losses in Iraq. "You know better than anyone the consequences of defeat, my friends. We will never surrender," McCain said as the crowd erupted in applause.

Clinton, in an interview Tuesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," said the troop buildup had failed in its stated purpose, "to give the Iraqi government space and time to do what it needed to do when it came to allocating oil revenues, improving services, coming to some political reconciliation."

For his part, Obama told NBC's "Today" show, "The most important issue is still the one that was asked in September," when Petraeus testified before Congress, "which is how has this war made us safer and at what point do we know that there is success so we can start bringing our troops home."

For now, Petraeus faces a dramatically different political landscape than last fall when support for the war had been eroding steadily among Republicans. Petraeus' testimony helped shore up GOP defections at the time. And since then, a significant drop in violence has helped stave off legislation ordering troops home.

Recent statistics reviewed by the AP show that while violence in Iraq is still down substantially, there have been spikes in both deaths and attacks since the slow withdrawal of U.S. troops began in December.

The internal strife was underscored by a rise in ethno-sectarian violence between Iraqis in March, the first such monthly increase since last July.

Defense officials also warned Monday of another likely spike in attacks this week, as U.S. forces strike back at militia fighters in Sadr City. And officials also said there are indications that al-Qaida is looking for an opportunity to reassert its influence in the Baghdad region.

In addition to insisting that troops must stay in Iraq to fight the terrorists, which has been the party line for some time, Republicans are expected to talk more about the need for a comprehensive political settlement among Baghdad politicians. They believe that this tracks more closely with the voters' views that the U.S. commitment cannot be indefinite.

Petraeus' plan would allow the five extra brigades ordered to Iraq last year to withdraw by July without ordering their replacement. After that, he and other military officials would wait to see whether Iraq was stable enough to allow additional troops to leave.

Also this week, possibly on Thursday when Bush addresses the nation on the war, the administration plans to announce that soldiers will spend no longer than 12 months at a time in combat, a decrease of three months in current combat tours.

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