Petraeus to Halt Troop Withdrawals

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander in Iraq told Congress on Tuesday he plans to stop U.S. troop withdrawals in July because of fragile security gains in a progress report with repercussions on the U.S. presidential campaign.

A recent increase in violence -- including the deaths of 11 U.S. service personnel in the past 48 hours -- has thrust Iraq back to among the top concerns of war-weary American voters looking ahead of the November election.

General 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."

He said the progress made since last spring was "fragile and reversible" and that an Iraqi operation to tackle Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra was a disappointment, not adequately planned or prepared.

Petraeus said he 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.

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 troop increase.

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

Among those questioning Petraeus at the hearing were two presidential candidates, Arizona Senator John McCain, a strong supporter of the U.S. presence in Iraq, and New York Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to begin pulling troops out if elected in November.

Illinois Democratic Senator Barack Obama, a third candidate, was to face Petraeus later at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

McCain 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.