Page last updated at 23:30 GMT, Tuesday, 8 April 2008 00:30 UK

US 'must suspend' Iraq withdrawal

Gen David Petraeus
Petraeus said Iraq was "exceedingly complex and challenging"

The top US military leader in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, has recommended a suspension of troop withdrawals after July to protect gains in Iraq.

Gen Petraeus praised "significant" but "uneven" improvements in security and said troop levels would need a period of evaluation over the summer.

He also said the recent Iraqi operation in Basra was "not adequately planned".

He and Ambassador Ryan Crocker gave an update to Congress on the Iraq "surge", on the first of two days of hearings.

They also came face to face with the three senators vying to succeed George W Bush as president this November.

John McCain, the Republicans' choice as candidate, was positive about the situation in Iraq while Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the rivals for the Democratic candidacy, pressed for withdrawal.

'Evaluation period'

Gen Petraeus and Mr Crocker began on Tuesday by testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, then moved on to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

John McCain
Our allies, Arab countries, the UN and the Iraqis themselves will not step up to their responsibilities if we recklessly retreat
Senator John McCain

Gen Petraeus said security was better than the situation at the time of his last report to Congress in September and significantly better than before the start of the US troop surge at the beginning of last year.

But while there had been real progress, it was "fragile and is reversible", he said.

The planned "drawdown" of about 20,000 troops should continue to July but afterwards there should be a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation", he said.

He could not say how many US troops would be in Iraq at the end of the year. The US currently has 160,000 troops in Iraq.

Mr McCain said he believed there was a genuine chance of success in Iraq and that a withdrawal could result in a failure that might require the US to return later for a far more costly war.

"Our allies, Arab countries, the UN and the Iraqis themselves will not step up to their responsibilities if we recklessly retreat," he said.

When he asked Gen Petraeus about the recent Iraqi-led operation against militias in Basra, the US commander said it had not been "adequately planned or prepared".

Iraq sent thousands of troops to Basra in a failed attempt to force the Shia Mehdi Army militia into submission. Hundreds died in heavy fighting.

'Massive blunder'

Ambassador Crocker said progress in Iraq had been "uneven and often frustratingly slow" but the US and Iraq were negotiating a long-term agreement on their relations that would cover the US troop presence.

Barack Obama listens to Gen Petraeus speaking
The withdrawal of US troops is a key issue in the presidential campaign

He insisted the deal did not envisage permanent US bases in Iraq and that it would "not tie the hands of the next administration".

Mrs Clinton, who serves on the armed services committee, condemned the decision not to submit the deal to the US Congress.

She said it was time for the "orderly process of withdrawing troops" as Iraqi leaders had failed to deliver.

The Iraq deployment, she argued, was stretching the military's resources while the Bush administration was ignoring the costs being incurred by continuing a failed policy.

Gen Petraeus accused Iran of funding and training Shia militias through cells the US terms "special groups".

Speaking as a member of the foreign relations committee, Mr Obama said the US "should be talking to Iran [as it could] not stabilise the situation without them".

He repeated his view that the US invasion had been a "massive strategic blunder" and called for a timetable for withdrawal.


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