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WASHINGTON - The U.S. general commanding the Iraq war called for an open-ended suspension of American troop withdrawals this summer, reflecting concern about a recent flare-up in violence.


WASHINGTON - The U.S. general commanding the Iraq war called for an open-ended suspension of American troop withdrawals this summer, reflecting concern about a recent flare-up in violence.

Gen. David Petraeus' recommendation leaves open the possibility that few, if any, additional troops will be brought home before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January.

Petraeus told a Senate hearing Tuesday that he recommends a 45-day "period of consolidation and evaluation" once the extra combat forces that Bush ordered to Iraq last year have completed their pullout in July.

He said the past year's progress is "fragile and reversible," and he did not commit to any additional troop withdrawals beyond July.

"This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit," he said.

"This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable. However, it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still fragile security gains our troopers have fought so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve."

The plan gives Petraeus maximum flexibility at a time of rising violence in Baghdad and some other parts of the country. It runs counter to Democrats' push for a more rapid reduction in the U.S. military commitment and a faster transfer of responsibility to the Iraqi government.

Petraeus said his approach is intended to "form a foundation for the gradual establishment of sustainable security in Iraq." But he did not say when he thought that goal would be reached.

"Withdrawing too many forces too quickly could jeopardize the progress of the past year," Petraeus said.

Bush has said he intended to accept Petraeus' recommendation. On Thursday, the president will make a speech about the war, now in its sixth year, and his decision about troop levels.

Under questioning by Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Petraeus said he could not predict when troop reductions would be resumed or how many U.S. troops were likely to remain in Iraq by the end of this year.

There currently are 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and the Pentagon has projected that when the scheduled troop withdrawals are completed in July there will be about 140,000 troops there.

Levin reminded Petraeus that Defence Secretary Robert Gates has said a pause in troop reductions should be brief, and the senator said the Petraeus plan amounted to an open-ended suspension.

"What you've given to your chain of command is a plan which has no end to it," Levin said. He asked Petraeus when he would be in position to recommend further troop cuts, once the 45-day evaluation period ends in September.

"It could be right then, or it could be longer," the general said. He declined to be pinned down, saying he would recommend further cuts when conditions were right.

One of the few other committee members to press Petraeus on a timeline was Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana. He urged Petraeus to give at least a rough estimate of when further troop reductions might be possible.

The general would not budge.

"If you believe as I do - and the commanders on the ground believe - that the way forward on reductions should be conditions-based then it is just flat not responsible to try to put down a stake in the ground and say this is when it would be or that is when it would be," Petraeus said.

Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential hopeful and a sharp critic of the administration's Iraq policy, asked Petraeus for more clarity on what factors he would use in deciding when to recommend more troop reductions. But she did not press him at length.

She reiterated her view that Bush's policy has failed and that the time has arrived to disengage from Iraq to focus more fully on other security problems like Afghanistan.

"It's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing our troops," she said.

The presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, attended the hearing as the committee's ranking Republican.

"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."

During the exchange with Levin, the packed hearing was briefly interrupted by one protester repeatedly shouting, "Bring them home!" The protester was removed from the room by Capitol police.

 
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