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White House candidates question top commander in Iraq
US Iraq DCDA109 5604092
Democratic president hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, greets Gen. David Petraeus on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 8, 2008, prior to his testifying before the committee's hearing on the status of the war in Iraq. - photo by Associated Press
    WASHINGTON — Gen. David Petraeus, meet your next commander in chief.
    The top commander in Iraq found himself in the middle of presidential politics Tuesday — literally — as he was questioned by White House candidates politically and physically on either side during a congressional hearing.
    The presidential hopefuls made a rare return to Capitol Hill for the high-profile session in which Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker delivered their assessment of the war, now entering its sixth year.
    Republican Sen. John McCain elicited answers that he hopes will bolster his call to stay the course. Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama argued U.S. troops should come home.
    They toned down their heated campaign rhetoric to fit the decorum of a congressional hearing — avoiding criticizing one another by name — but the divisions were clear. McCain said promises to withdraw forces ‘‘would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.’’
    ‘‘I fundamentally disagree,’’ Clinton said later, when it was her turn to speak. ‘‘Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again.’’
    McCain and Clinton sit on the Armed Services Committee, which heard from Petraeus and Crocker in the morning. Obama serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which scheduled an afternoon round of testimony.
    The four-term Arizona senator asked questions designed to support his argument that the United States should maintain its troop presence in Iraq and that withdrawal would prove disastrous.
    He asked Petraeus about the Iraqi government’s military operation to quell violence in Basra, recent attacks on the U.S.-occupied Green Zone, the threat al-Qaida poses in Iraq and Iranian involvement. He also asked Crocker about the likelihood of a long-term security arrangement in Iraq.
    At the same time, McCain was able to put both officials on record that a certain level of troops is likely to remain in Iraq for years to come. McCain has said U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, citing the half-century or longer U.S. presence in South Korea and other parts of the world where forces are based to deter conflict, not fight one.
    McCain was the only presidential candidate to get a chance for an opening statement in addition to his questioning as he’s the top Republican on the committee. He used that nine-minute statement to put a positive spin on developments in Iraq over the past year, saying security has improved dramatically and political reconciliation has moved forward.
    He argued that ‘‘much more needs to be done’’ on security, political and economic fronts, but that ‘‘we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success.’’
    ‘‘I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal — my goal — is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops,’’ McCain said. ‘‘And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I also believe that to promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership.’’
    Clearly at odds with McCain, the New York senator argued that there has been a lack of political progress in Iraq to justify the increase in troops last year.
    She said the fight diverts military resources from other needs around the world. She also cited studies on the increased mental strain on troops serving repeat deployments, with more than a quarter showing signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress.
    She placed the blame not just on President Bush, but also supporters of his policy — in other words, McCain.
    ‘‘The administration and supporters of the administration’s policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy,’’ she said, reading from prepared remarks that aides said she wrote.
    ‘‘I think it’s time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops, start rebuilding our military and focusing on the challenges posed by Afghanistan, the global terrorist groups and other problems that confront America,’’ she said.
    She pressed Petraeus on what conditions would have to exist for him to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working. He responded that the factors include the status of the enemy, Iraqi forces, local governance and the economic and political situations, but ‘‘it’s not a mathematical exercise.’’
    Clinton also objected to Crocker’s statement that the Iraqi parliament will get a chance to review a U.S.-Iraqi agreement that would give legal authority for American troops to remain in Iraq, but Congress will not. ‘‘It seems odd,’’ she said, adding that she has legislation that would require congressional review.
    Clinton said Iraq presents a ‘‘very difficult dilemma’’ for decision-makers. ‘‘If this were easy or if there were a very clear way forward, we could all perhaps agree on the facts about how to build toward a resolution that is in the best interests of the United States, that would stabilize Iraq and would meet our other challenges around the world.’’
    ‘‘The most important issue is still the one that was asked in September which is how has this war made us safer and at what point do we know that there is success so we can start bringing our troops home,’’ Obama told NBC’s ‘‘Today Show.’’
    ‘‘My belief is that we are not in a situation where staying another 10, 15 or 20 years is going to change the fundamentals on the ground,’’ Obama said.
    ‘‘What we have not seen is the Iraqi government using the space that was created not only by our troops but by the standdown of the militias in places like Basra, to use that to move forward on a political agenda that could actually bring stability,’’ Obama said.
    Obama, who leads Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, won’t get his turn to speak until near the end of the day. Only four Democrats rank lower than him on the Foreign Relations Committee, but aides said he planned to attend most of the session to hear Petraeus.
    Appearing on NBC, Obama also criticized McCain for supporting the war from the beginning and indefinitely into the future. ‘‘John McCain has not offered any clear point at which he suggests it’s time for us to move our troops home,’’ Obama said.

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