US commander says Iraq security gains “fragile”

The top U.S. commander in Iraq told Congress on Tuesday that Iraqi security gains after a year-old troop increase were fragile and said in a report to deeply divided lawmakers he would stop troop withdrawals in July.

An increase in violence — including the deaths of 11 American service personnel in the past 48 hours — has thrust Iraq back to the forefront of campaigns for the November presidential election.

Gen. David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that despite an improvement in security in parts of Iraq “the situation in certain areas is still unsatisfactory and innumerable challenges remain.”

“Moreover, as events in the past two weeks have reminded us, and as I have repeatedly cautioned, the progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible,” he said.

He said had recommended a 45-day halt in July to a series of troop withdrawals in order to judge developments on the ground and a subsequent assessment period to determine whether security is sufficient to bring more home.

Petraeus’ plan to slow troop withdrawals drew a rebuke from the committee chairman, Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin. He called it “an open-ended pause” that would represent “the next page in a war plan with no exit strategy.”

Questioning U.S. policy, Levin said even the small political steps taken by the Iraqi government were in jeopardy because of the “incompetence and the excessively sectarian leadership” of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The United States is withdrawing about 20,000 of the troops that were sent to Iraq last year to bolster the American presence and create a more stable environment to help the Iraqi government work on political reconciliation objectives.

That could mean more than 130,000 U.S. troops are still in Iraq to the end of President George W. Bush’s term. Petraeus said he could not say how many troops would be there by the end of 2008. “Sir, I can’t give you an estimate,” he said.

All three contenders for the U.S. presidency — Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and the two Democrats, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, were among the senators expected to question Petraeus, injecting the U.S. presidential campaign into the proceedings.

Protesters frequently interrupted the proceedings, providing an edgy atmosphere inside a Capitol Hill hearing room packed with news media and onlookers.

“Bring them home!” shouted one demonstrator, who was hustled out as Petraeus tried to speak.

McCain, who has clinched the Republican presidential nomination for president, said he saw a genuine prospect of success in Iraq and warned that defeat could require U.S. troops to return in a broader war.

“We’re no longer staring into the abyss of defeat and we can now look ahead to the genuine process of success,” McCain said.

In testimony to different committees over two days, Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, will assess the uneven progress made in a year-long “surge” of force meant to create the calm for Iraqi politicians to advance legislation and factions to reconcile.

The United States now has 160,000 troops in Iraq. Under plans announced last year, the Pentagon is pulling five combat brigades — or about 20,000 troops — out by mid-July, bringing the force level down to what it was before the surge.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan, Andrew Gray and Andy Sullivan; Writing by Steve Holland; Editing by David Storey)