‘No lights at the end of the tunnel’ in Iraq

The top general in Iraq has called for troop withdrawals to be frozen for at least 45 days after July, warning military gains remained fragile and accusing Iran of seeking to stoke violence.

General David Petraeus recommended to lawmakers that once the last of the 30,000 extra troops pumped into Iraq last year are withdrawn in July “we undertake a 45-day period of consolidation and evaluation.”

Dressed in his uniform with medals adorning his chest, the four-star general warned that while security has improved, “we haven’t turned any corners, we haven’t seen any lights at the end of the tunnel.

“The champagne bottle has been pushed to the back of the refrigerator. And the progress, while real, is fragile and is reversible.”

But amid a flare-up of violence in Iraq, Democrats charged that Petraeus was seeking a blank check to commit troops indefinitely to an unpopular war which has already claimed more than 4,000 US lives and stretched into its sixth year.

“It seems to me what you have given to your chain of command is a plan which has no end to it,” said Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That is a clear, open-ended pause.”

Petraeus was joined by the US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker in the grueling twin hearings of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, for their first report to Congress in seven months.

The pair returns to Capitol Hill Wednesday to testify in the lower US House of Representatives.

“While security has improved in many areas, and the Iraqi security forces are shouldering more of the load, the situation in Iraq remains exceedingly complex and challenging,” Petraeus warned Tuesday.

US forces, which invaded the country in March 2003, could face a resurgence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or see more fighting with the Shiite militias such as those led by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he said.

“External actors, like Iran, could stoke violence within Iraq and actions by other neighbors could undermine the security situation as well,” he added.

The US military is currently withdrawing five combat brigades sent into Iraq early last year.

But the general’s testimony left unanswered how long a pause would be required and whether US forces would remain at about 140,000 troops, the pre-surge level.

Amid violent clashes between the Baghdad government and rival Shiite factions, Petraeus accused Iran of backing militia groups such as that led by Sadr.

“The flare-up highlighted the destructive role Iran has played in funding, training, arming and directing the so-called special groups, and generated a renewed concern about Iran in many Iraqi leaders,” he said.

The two days of testimony are set to shape US Iraq policy in the waning months of President W. Bush’s term in office.

Crocker dismissed notions that the US was seeking to establish permanent bases in Iraq through an agreement currently being negotiated between Washington and Baghdad to keep US forces in the country beyond 2008, once a UN mandate expires.

“The agreement will not establish permanent bases in Iraq, and … it will not tie the hands of the next administration.”

But Crocker conceded that in sections of the country like Basra, “with scenes of increasing violence, and masked gunmen in the streets, it is hard to see how this situation supports a narrative of progress in Iraq,” Crocker said.

The hearing was briefly disrupted by anti-war protestors, with one man standing at the back of the wood paneled hearing room screaming “Bring them home!” before he was hustled out by US Capitol police.

Later, in a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama called for a “diplomatic surge” including talks with US foe Iran, to help stabilize the situation in Iraq.

“We should be talking to them as well,” Obama said. “I do not believe we are going to be able to stabilize the situation without that.”

In an interview late Tuesday Crocker said the United States was ready for a fourth round of talk with Iran on the issue of Iraqi security.

“We don’t want to have just what you describe as a proxy war with Iran inside Iraq, and that is why we are willing to sit down with Iran face to face for talks on Iraqi security at the invitation of the Iraqi government,” Crocker told ABC’s Nightline program.

“We’ve had three rounds of those talks and we’ve told them we are ready to again.”