Page last updated at 00:43 GMT, Thursday, 10 April 2008 01:43 UK

Inheriting President Bush's war

By Kim Ghattas
BBC News, Washington

US troops on patrol in Iraq
The withdrawal of US troops is a key issue in the presidential campaign

There were no real surprises in the recommendations of US Gen David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on what is next for Iraq.

It was simply a confirmation for the three presidential hopefuls, and a particularly frustrating one for the Democrats, that the Iraq war will loom large over the start of the next presidency, whoever wins the race for the White House.

The testimonies of the US's two top officials in Baghdad were essentially turned into a campaign stop for the three candidates, who tried to show off their skills as commander- in-chief and audition for the role president of the United States.

Republican Senator John McCain and Democrat Hillary Clinton, who are both on the Senate's armed services committee, came first.

Barack Obama, who sits on the foreign relations committee, had to wait for his turn much later in the day. Each candidate used the opportunity to repeat and highlight the key points of their strategy.

Hillary Clinton called for the start of an "orderly" withdrawal from Iraq, Mr Obama suggested a diplomatic surge that would involve talking to Iran and John McCain warned against a withdrawal that would lead to "genocide".

There were no surprise announcements there either, but observers scrutinised the performance of the candidates as they also tried to score points against each other.

Tepid debate

Mr McCain's intervention was partly a veiled attack against his two Democratic rivals because of their call for troop withdrawals.

President George W Bush
President Bush has an exit strategy for just one man - himself on 20 January, 2009
Harry Reid
Democratic Senate Majority leader

Senator Clinton picked up on it, when her turn came, saying it was not true to say "it is irresponsible or demonstrates a lack of leadership to advocate a withdrawal in a responsible and carefully planned manner".

By the time she spoke though, Mr McCain had already left the Senate.

Overall, though, US media coverage of the candidates appeared mostly factual, almost tepid - perhaps because the senators themselves gave very little in terms of fodder to be picked over.

But media coverage also underscored that while Iraq will be a headache for the next president, it is sinking as a priority for the American public as the US faces a possible recession.

All three candidates appeared sombre, poised and respectful of the US's top commander in Iraq - the Democrats were particularly keen not to appear as unpatriotic or undermining US troops fighting abroad.

Senator Clinton, who looked tired, was much more reserved than during the last Iraq hearing in September 2007, when she told Gen Petraeus that his report required the "suspension of disbelief".

End point

In their line of questioning, the three senators tried to show they understood the problems and had a plan to fix it. Mr Obama was, in some ways, the most pointed when his turn came in the Senate's foreign relations committee hearing late on Tuesday afternoon.

Gen David Petraeus
Gen Petraeus said the situation in Iraq was still unsatisfactory

He spoke the longest of all three and tried hard to draw Gen Petraeus into defining what exactly defined success. His argument centred around the idea that it was probably not possible to completely eliminate the influence of Iran and al-Qaeda in Iraq - so what goals was the US setting for itself in Iraq to quantify success?

"If... our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbours and it's not an al-Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," he said.

He added, in what was described by the Washington Post as the quote of the day - "I'm trying to get to an end point, that's what all of us are trying to get to."

The frustration about Iraq, was a recurrent theme in the Democratic camp.

"We are stuck in a twilight zone in Iraq," said Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. "When violence is up, the president says we cannot bring our troops home.

"When violence dips, the president says we cannot bring our troops home. With 160,000 courageous American troops serving in Iraq, President Bush has an exit strategy for just one man - himself on 20 January, 2009."

Stable foundation

It is likely that when he speaks on Thursday, President Bush will back the recommendations of Gen Petraeus to pause the withdrawal of any more troops after the surge troops return home - that would leave around 140,000 US troops in Iraq for the next president to look after.

We're a generous people but our patience is not unlimited
John Barrasso,
Republican senator

The Bush administration's Iraq position has fuelled some accusations that it is trying to tie the hands of the next administration, and there have been concerns about the long term agreement of principles and status of forces agreement that the US and Iraq are discussing at the moment.

"The agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq and we anticipate that it will expressly foreswear them," said Ambassador Crocker during his testimony.

"The agreement will not specify troops levels and it will not tie the hands of the next administration. Our aim is to ensure that the next president arrives in office with a stable foundation upon which to base policy decision and that is precisely what this agreement will do."

Limited patience

Unable to change the current policy on troop presence in Iraq, Democrats are looking for other ways to influence the course of things.

A lot of the questions during the hearing were related to the cost of the war - currently estimated at $10bn (5bn) a month - and the burden this constitutes for the American taxpayer.

The reconstruction of Iraq also relies heavily on US money, while Iraqi oil revenues are growing, with a surplus estimated at $30bn in US banks according to Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat and chairman of the armed services committee.

Democrats want to try to push legislation that would force Iraq to spend those revenues on reconstruction and in that there seems to be unusual bi-partisan agreement. Republican senators also asked why the Iraqis were not using more of their own money.

Republican Senator John Barrasso from Wyoming said: "We're a generous people but our patience is not unlimited."

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