Newyork Times

WASHINGTON — General David H. Petraeus, the commander of American forces in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the American Ambassador to Iraq, faced a new round of deep congressional skepticism today, not only about progress in the war and the prospects for eventual withdrawal, but also about whether the nation’s involvement in Iraq had made it more vulnerable on other fronts.

Brendan Smialowski for The New York Times

Gen. David H. Petraeus during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.

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The general and the ambassador carried their message of “fragile and reversible” progress in the war to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday morning and the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon, the day after they testified before the corresponding committees in the Senate. Repeating the opening statements they made to the Senate panels, the two men once again yielded little fresh information about when the American military presence in Iraq could be reduced beyond the roughly 140,000 troops who will be left when the “surge” of about 30,000 extra troops sent to the country in 2007 winds down again in July.

Representative Ike Skelton, Democrat of Missouri and the chairman of the Armed Services committee, said in opening the first hearing on Wednesday that he saw far too few signs of real progress in Iraq, and warned that the continuing war’s strains on the American military were diverting the country from attending to other threats, starting with what intelligence reports say is a terrorist resurgence along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. “The effort in Iraq is putting at risk our ability to decisively defeat those most likely to attack us,” he said.

Mr. Skelton said that while the “surge” had temporarily lowered the amount of violence in Iraq, Iraqis had failed to “step up” to take advantage of the improved security. And he said he feared that officials in Baghdad would feel no sense of urgency to pursue sectarian reconciliation and achieve full autonomy until “we take the training wheels off and let the Iraqis begin to stand on their own two feet.”

General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker acknowledged the problems — “The situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory, and innumerable challenges remain,” the general told the House panel, as he had the Senate committees on Tuesday — but the two men said that the current course was producing important results and that it was the only way forward. “I do remain convinced that a major departure from our current engagement would bring failure,” Mr. Crocker said.

Representative Duncan Hunter of California, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services committee, agreed with their assessment. While some had declared the surge a failure from the start, he said at the morning hearing, “I think, by all metrics, it’s been a success.” He cited Anbar Province, where some formerly hostile Sunni tribesmen are now aligned with American forces, saying the situation there had changed from violent to “extremely benign.”

Despite lingering problems in the Iraqi Army, Mr. Hunter said, “I think they’ve made enormous advances and improvements since the last hearing we held.”

Republicans’ expressions of support for administration policy clashed again with deeply expressed doubts about Iraq, mostly from Democrats, when the general and the ambassador moved to the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon.

Representative Howard L. Berman, Democrat of California and the chairman of the committee, said, “In some areas, we seem to be slipping backwards.” He cited a recent resurgence of violence in Baghdad. Vital areas of Baghdad, like the central neighborhood known as the Green Zone that includes the United States Embassy and the heavily fortified headquarters of the national government, remained vulnerable, Mr. Berman said.

“How effective could this effort have been when mortars and rockets can rain on the Green Zone?” he asked. “For more than two weeks, our embassy is bombarded. In all, the past two-plus weeks have seen the worst violence in the Green Zone since the war began.”

But Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the ranking Republican, embraced the administration’s argument. “Immediate disengagement would only embolden the forces of radical Islam and leave an enormous power vacuum in Iraq, one to be filled by the regime in Iran, with its proxies in Iraq and throughout the region.”

A blog looking at daily life inside Iraq, produced by The Times’s Baghdad bureau.

President Bush, who has indicated that he expects to rely heavily on the general’s recommendations, is scheduled to outline his policy for the months ahead at the White House on Thursday. Despite their regular prodding and criticism of the administration on the conduct and cost of the war, the Democrats in Congress appeared to lack sufficient support to force a significant change in the president’s approach. With some exceptions, Congressional Republicans have stood with Mr. Bush.

General Petraeus’s plan, laid out for both the House and Senate committees, is to hold force levels steady after the surge ends in July, with no new withdrawals for at least 45 days, while commanders evaluate the situation in Iraq. That would leave little time to withdraw more than two or three brigades before the end of the Bush presidency, even if a pullout began in earnest as soon as the 45-day period ended.

But in his testimony before the Senate panels, the general seemed far from ready to recommend such withdrawals, or even to say under what conditions he might favor them, despite persistent questioning from Democrats on the two committees.

Tuesday’s hearings lacked the suspense of last September’s debate, when the focus was on measurable benchmarks and heightened expectations of speedy troop withdrawals. But they thrust the war to the center of the presidential campaign, as General Petraeus faced questioning from the two Democrats and one Republican still vying for the White House. He told them at one point that progress in Iraq had been “significant and uneven.”

General Petraeus’s tone was notably sober, and he acknowledged that “we haven’t turned any corners, we haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel,” despite the intensified American military campaign over the past 15 months of the surge.

Though the increased troop commitment sharply reduced insurgent attacks across much of Iraq last year, the relative calm was broken last month when the government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki ordered an assault on Shiite militias in Basra, setting off renewed violence there and around Baghdad.

At times, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic candidates, and Senator John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, seemed to be talking about two different wars. “We’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success,” Mr. McCain said.

Mrs. Clinton, sitting just a few feet away as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, cited Iraq’s sluggish political progress and a questionable recent Iraqi military campaign in Basra as evidence not of success, but rather failure.

“It might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Senator Obama, Mrs. Clinton’s rival, restated his view that the war in Iraq had been a “massive strategic blunder.” During a hearing of the Foreign Relations Committee, he said his efforts to end the war would include a timetable for withdrawing troops and an intensified diplomatic effort that would include talks with Iran.

In their remarks on Tuesday, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker referred only infrequently to the political benchmarks that served as a framework for their testimony last fall, but which the Iraqi government for the most part has been unable to achieve.

“Countless sectarian fault lines still exist in Baghdad and elsewhere,” General Petraeus said. But he noted that Sunni leaders previously marginalized by Iraq’s Shiite-led government had joined the security efforts over recent months, with important successes.

General Petraeus said the security situation in Iraq remained in flux in part because of the “destructive role Iran has played,” with its backing of “special groups” of Shiite radicals that he said now posed the greatest immediate threat in Iraq. He said that the threat posed by Sunni extremists who say they are aligned with Al Qaeda had been “reduced significantly” but would required “relentless pressure” to ensure that the extremists did not regroup.Both General Petraeus and Mr. Crocker faced sharp questioning from Democrats who sounded increasingly exasperated. “A year ago, the president argued that we wouldn’t begin to withdraw troops from Iraq, because there was too much violence,” Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts said. “Now the president argues we can’t begin to withdraw troops, because violence is down.”

A recurring theme of the criticism involved the financial costs of the war at a time when Iraq has built up a budget surplus fueled by high oil prices. Another was that a timetable for withdrawing American forces would force the Iraqi government to shoulder more responsibility for its own fate.

The Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, also criticized the Bush administration’s negotiations on a lasting security agreement with Iraq and its refusal to submit the agreement to the Senate for ratification. Mr. Crocker repeated several times that the agreement being negotiated would not rise to a level requiring a Senate vote, but that did not satisfy Mr. Biden.

“You need to do much more than inform the Congress, you need the permission of the Congress if you’re going to bind the next president of the United States in anything you agree to,” the Democratic senator said.

In the Senate galleries, protesters echoed those attacks, interrupting the debate on occasions. As Mr. McCain argued against what he described as “reckless and irresponsible” calls for rapid withdrawal from Iraq, a protester stood up with a banner saying, “There’s no military solution.” When Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat, questioned General Petraeus on when reductions of troops could continue, a man shouted, “Bring them home,” and was later evicted.

A group of women attended in traditional Muslim dress, their faces painted with ghostly makeup. Some held bloodied dolls, and some had red-stained hands. Their signs read, “Surge of Sorrow” and “Endless War.”

Even some Republicans voiced reservations about a war effort whose end remained far from clear. “Our patience is not unlimited,” said Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, who was sworn in less than a year ago.

But General Petraeus signaled that the war was far from a foreseeable end. “We haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel,” he said when pressed by Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana about the basis for his positive assumptions. “The Champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible.”


This article incorporates portions of an earlier report on the Senate hearings by Steven Lee Myers and Thom Shanker.