Anti-war Democrats accused the White House of plotting to saddle the next president with a “quagmire” in Iraq, as General David Petraeus, the head of the US-led forces in the country, faced a second day of scrutiny in Congress.
On the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad, Petraeus and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker on Wednesday spoke to two committees in the House of Representatives. They faced a similar grilling in the Senate on Tuesday.
President George W. Bush’s spokeswoman meanwhile left little doubt that he would back the general’s call for freezing US troop withdrawals for at least 45 days after July in a national speech on Iraq policy Thursday.
Bush is also set to announce a return to shorter 12-month tours for US army troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, ending 15-month tours that have strained the force, a US defense official said speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House said he will give a speech on Iraq and US troop levels at 11:30 am (1530 GMT).
Democratic Senate Majority leader Harry Reid did not wait for Bush to speak, demanding changes to a war plan that looks set in stone for the rest of this presidency.
“We are stuck in a twilight zone in Iraq,” Reid said.
“When violence is up, the president says we cannot bring our troops home. When violence dips, the president says we cannot bring our troops home.
“President Bush has an exit strategy for just one man — himself — on January 20, 2009.”
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said top administration officials must accept the judgment of history over the war and would soon “hand over the quagmire of Iraq to the next president.”
Republican reaction to Petraeus’ comments revealed the gulf between the parties over the war.
“The success achieved by our troops is undeniable,” said John Boehner, the top Republican in the House of Representatives.
“Violence in Iraq is down, the Iraqi people are taking greater responsibility for the future of their nation, and our troops are beginning to return home after success, not defeat.”
The hearings were the latest political flashpoint over Bush’s troop surge strategy and a war stretching into its sixth year, which has now killed more than 4,000 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians.
Petraeus picked his way through a political minefield on day two of the Iraq war hearings, and was asked how he would respond to a future president who demanded a withdrawal from Iraq.
“I can only serve one boss at a time, and I can only execute one policy at a time,” he said. “I am sworn to the concept of civilian control of the military; I fully support it. And we execute the mission that we have at that time.”
The exchange reflected the difficulty Democrats have had in attacking Petraeus and Crocker, who have emerged as the main defenders of Bush’s policy, even though their jobs are apolitical.
“How do you know we’ve won?” asked Democrat Gary Ackerman. “How do we know the Iraqis can stand up for themselves? Nobody seems to be able to answer that question.”
Some Republicans were also critical.
“I still have a hard time seeing the big picture and what constitutes success,” said Republican Jeff Flake.
Republican Dan Burton added: “We need some direct answers from you folks.”
The three senators running for president meanwhile took the row over Iraq back out onto the campaign trail.
Republican John McCain, a strong war supporter, rejected Democrat Barack Obama’s suggestion that the United States should talk to its sworn foe Iran over stabilizing Iraq, as part of a regional “diplomatic” surge.
“I do not think that it would be helpful in any way to enhance the prestige of people like that,” McCain told Fox News.
The other Democrat, Hillary Clinton on Wednesday demanded answers from Bush on Iraq, while campaigning in Pennsylvania, and said Congress must approve any long-term deal with Baghdad on stationing US forces in the country.
“I call on the president to answer the question that General Petraeus did not,” Clinton said, while campaigning in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania.
“What is our end game in Iraq given the failure of the surge to achieve the objective that the president outlined for it?”
Both Clinton and Obama have pledged to bring US troops home if elected.
Petraeus on Tuesday recommended 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.”
White House press secretary Dana Perino signaled Wednesday Bush would back the plan.
“You’ve heard the president say for years that he’s the type of commander in chief who listens to his commanders on the ground and to the experts who can provide the best advice to him.”