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Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, reiterated his support for troop withdrawals from Iraq in a highly anticipated testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday. He and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador, are appearing before several US congressional committees Tuesday and Wednesday to give a progress report on the security situation in Iraq, a year after the “surge” of 30,000 extra American troops into the country.
Petraeus said the withdrawal of the surge troops from Iraq would be completed in July and urged that any further drawdown should then be halted for 45 days.
"I recommend to my chain of command that we continue the drawdown of the surge combat forces and that, upon the withdrawal of the last surge brigade combat team in July, we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation," he said.
He gave more detail on what this pause will entail: "At the end of that period we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground, and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions."
Close to 158,000 US troops are currently serving in Iraq. Washington plans to pull out five brigades, approximately 20,000 soldiers, by July 2008, according to plans announced last year.
Presidential hopefuls air their views on Iraq
The US progress report has drawn special attention due to the presence of three Senate committee members: Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democrat frontrunners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The first candidate to speak at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, John McCain showed optimism but cautioned against troop withdrawal: "Should the United States instead choose to withdraw from Iraq before adequate security is established, we will exchange for this victory, a defeat that is terrible and long lasting."
Senator Hillary Clinton took a clear stance, saying "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."
Illinois Senator Barack Obama, said that the United States should set a timetable to pull its troops out of
Iraq to pressure leaders there to establish peace. "Nobody's asking for a precipitous withdrawal, but I do think that it has to be a measured but increased pressure," Obama said.
"I don't think the government knows what to do"
Other leading Democrats have already criticized the plan to halt withdrawals.
"The President's plan is to muddle through and hand the problem to the next president," Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee told Reuters. "I don't think they know what to do. I see no evidence of a political plan," he said.
Republicans, meanwhile, say the surge helped stabilize the situation in Iraq and are expected to favour the freeze in troop withdrawals.
“The Bush administration can boast of improving the situation in Iraq in the past six months, and of preventing al Qaeda attacks, but they’ve failed to solve the intra-Shia rivalries, “says FRANCE 24’s International Affairs Editor Gauthier Rybinski. “The Bush administration says a pause in troop withdrawal is necessary to help the Iraqi government in its crackdown against the Shia radical leader Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army.”