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Iraq hearings look beyond Bush presidency

Presidential hopefuls offered their views at Senate hearings.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2007


With the US commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, offering to make small reductions in US troop levels starting this year, and with no sign of a GOP exodus from US policy on Iraq, President Bush probably has the political space he needs to avoid a drawn-out battle with Congress over Iraq.

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That means the big decisions about post-"surge" policy are very likely to be left to the next president. And that made Tuesday's Senate hearings with General Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, all the more telling, almost like a presidential debate – not least because five candidates for US president were among the senators offering their takes on Iraq.

Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker made the case for more time for the US escalation in Iraq before the Senate as they had before House committees on Monday, knowing that pressure from Congress for setting a timetable for a US withdrawal has subsided. The result was that the congressional discussion seemed to be more about post-Bush visions than short-term planning.

"It's important because it's really about the next presidency," says Ken Pollack, an Iraq expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. Saying he believes Mr. Bush will drop troop numbers in Iraq to pre-surge levels of about 130,000 troops by some point next spring, Mr. Pollack says this essentially puts off major post-escalation decisions to the next administration.

"The real question is what the next president decides to do," he says.

In Tuesday's hearings, Petraeus and Crocker were to face five presidential candidates: Republican John McCain and Democrats Joseph Biden, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christopher Dodd, and Barack Obama.

Senator McCain has aligned himself most closely with the current strategy, claiming recently he is the only candidate who has consistently supported a policy of victory in Iraq through higher troop levels. But that leaves McCain closely associated with the unpopular Bush, who is expected later this week to outline a vision that largely endorses Petraeus's recommendations.

In his Senate testimony, Petraeus repeated his view, offered to the House Monday, that violence is down in Iraq as a result of the surge and is beginning to allow for political progress, especially at the provincial level.

Armed with stacks of charts and maps on the impact of the surge, Petraeus said Monday he would recommend withdrawing about 6,000 troops this year: a Marine unit of 2,000 this month and one Army brigade – about 4,000 troops – in December. That would be followed by a further partial drawdown that would return US troop numbers in Iraq to 130,000 by July 2008.

Petraeus also recommended that Bush wait until March of next year to make decisions about force levels for later in 2008.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Biden said he was more interested in knowing when and if Petraeus and Crocker thought the surge strategy would begin to have an impact on Iraqi progress toward national reconciliation. Biden said Tuesday he had concluded after a recent trip to Iraq that national political progress was no closer as a result of the surge.

For his part, Petraeus seemed to seek to directly address the position of some candidates, including Senator Clinton's of New York. She is in favor of US forces being drawn down more quickly, with those remaining focusing on the training of Iraqi security forces and the effort against Al Qaeda-affiliated forces in Iraq.