Page last updated at 13:34 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 14:34 UK

Congress hearing on Iraq begins

Washington's key leaders in Iraq, Gen Petraeus (left) and Ambassador Crocker (right), flank President Bush in Kuwait, 12 January 2008
The pair will be assessing the success of the US troop surge

The top US military and political officials in Iraq have begun delivering a progress report to Congress following last year's boost in US troop numbers.

Gen David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to say that the so-called surge of 30,000 extra troops has helped improve security in Iraq.

Among the senators grilling them on the war will be the three US presidency candidates, who sit on key committees.

The report comes after two weeks of violent clashes in Shia Iraqi areas.

Gen Petraeus is expected to say that he wants to continue to withdraw troops until they reach roughly the numbers that were in Iraq before the surge began, the BBC's Crispin Thorold in Baghdad says.

That is expected to happen by July, when the general hopes to suspend further withdrawals and review security.

Both men are expected to talk about the gains that have been made in Iraq - the increased numbers of US soldiers and more aggressive tactics greatly reduced the violence in some areas, and al-Qaeda and its sympathisers have been displaced in many parts of the country.

It's a failure of leadership to support an open-ended occupation of Iraq
Barack Obama
Democratic presidential hopeful

But, our correspondent says, the recent fighting between Shia militiamen and the Iraqi government forces has exposed the fragility of security and politics in Iraq.

Washington's strategy in the long term is to hand over control of the whole country to the Iraqi security forces, but that may take some time, our correspondent says.

Another part of the strategy is to back provincial elections due to be held in the autumn.

Contenders questions

Gen Petraeus and Mr Crocker are testifying on Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees.

Sen John McCain, the Republican nominee-in-waiting, and Democratic party hopeful Sen Hillary Clinton, are both members of the Armed Services Committee, which is now hearing from the two leaders in Iraq.

Sen Barack Obama, the other candidate vying for the Democrats' nomination, is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will have its turn later.

Ultimately, it will be one of these three who decide the country's long term involvement in Iraq, meaning, observers say, that the contenders' questions may be more significant than the testimony.

Iraqis pack their belongings to leave Sadr City on 7 April
Fighting in Baghdad's Sadr City shows the fragility of any lull in unrest

The issue of Iraq has featured prominently in the Democratic campaign, with Mr Obama contrasting his opposition to the invasion to the support both Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain gave it.

More than 4,000 US military personnel have been killed in Iraq since the invasion five years ago. Eleven US soldiers have been killed in Baghdad in the past two days.

Speaking on the eve of the hearings, Mr McCain suggested the Democrats were making promises about troop withdrawals they could not keep.

Mr Obama hit back by saying it was a "failure of leadership to support an open-ended occupation of Iraq".

Mrs Clinton said the Republican contender was pushing for "four more years of the Bush-Cheney-McCain policy of continuing to police a civil war" while other threats to the US mounted.

Further unrest

Violence continued in the main Shia area of Baghdad on Monday as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki threatened to bar supporters of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr from politics.

The government, which is itself Shia-dominated, has been pressing for Shia militias like Mr Sadr's Mehdi Army to be dissolved.

Two weeks ago, the prime minister sent thousands of troops to the southern city of Basra in a failed attempt to force the Mehdi Army into submission. Hundreds died in heavy fighting.

After a lull last week, violence between government forces and militiamen erupted again in Baghdad's Sadr City area on Sunday, and nine deaths were reported there on Monday.


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