General Petraeus awaits chilly reception at Iraq hearings

(dpa) - General David Petraeus will likely get a cool reception when he appears next week on Capitol Hill to testify on progress under US President George W Bush's troop surge in Iraq.

The top US military commander in Iraq is expected to tell Congress that the buildup has delivered dramatic reductions in violence since coming fully into effect in September, but will likely also advocate keeping the pre-surge baseline of 130,000 troops deployed once the buildup ends this summer.

That won't sit well with the majority Democrats and even some of Bush's own Republicans, who believe that the Iraqi government has failed to achieve any real progress toward political reconciliation despite the "breathing room" provided by the surge.

"The major failure of the Bush policy has been the failure to turn over responsibility to the Iraqis for their own future," said Senator Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Petraeus will be joined by Ryan Crocker, US ambassador to Iraq, in two days of testimony beginning Tuesday in the Senate. The US Army general was expected to push for maintaining the large presence without a timetable for withdrawals, over concerns that Iraqi could still spiral back into the extreme violence that peaked in early 2007.

The centre-left Democrats opposed Bush's deployment of an additional 30,000 troops last year. They sought unsuccessfully to impose a timeframe for US withdrawals to pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other political leaders to put aside ethnic and religious differences and enact vital legislation.

"We have not taken our hand off the bicycle seat and forced them to do it," Levin said.

Bush, who leaves office in January 2009, has argued that while the surge has worked, that the security gains are fragile and require a firm commitment by the US military. He warned in a March 24 speech that Iraq would descend into chaos if the US left and promised to ensure that the deaths of more than 4,000 US soldiers in Iraq were for a successful cause.

"I have vowed in the past, and I will vow so long as I'm president to make sure that those lives were not lost in vain," Bush said.

Bush has said he will follow the advice offered by Petraeus and other military commanders with regard to any further withdrawals. He has the backing of Senator John McCain, the centre-right Republican Party's presumptive presidential nominee, who strongly supported the troop surge and argues that the United States has a moral obligation to the Iraqi people to finish the job.

Senator Joseph Biden, Democratic chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said that Bush lacks a sound strategy for Iraq and that the next president will have to develop a plan for long-term stability.

"The administration has no notion about what to do," Biden said. "They are praying they can hold this together without it completely imploding, and hand it off to the next guy."

The Levin and Biden, in a teleconference with reporters, said that the offensive launched last week by al-Maliki against Shiite militias in the southern Iraqi city of Basra showed the weakness of the government. Levin called al-Maliki "incompetent."

Iraqi security forces fought the militias to a stalemate, which ended after Shiite radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr order the militias to stand down.

Biden said that the surge has has only reduced violence to 2005 levels and expressed little confidence bloodshed will remain muted after the troop surge ends this summer.

"I think things are going to be a whole hell of a lot worse in September," Biden said.

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