WASHINGTON — The top U.S. military commander in Iraq said Wednesday that he is unlikely to call for another troop buildup in Iraq, even if security deteriorates after the extra American soldiers return home this summer.
Gen. David Petraeus told a House panel that such a move would be considered a last resort, in part because of the strain it would place on the Army. First, the military could try to reallocate existing troops to respond to any hot spots. It also would rely more on Iraqi forces, which are improving in capability, he said.
"That would be a pretty remote thought in my mind," he said of reinstating last year's influx of troops.
Petraeus has recommended to President Bush that the United States complete, by the end of July, the withdrawal of the 20,000 troops that were sent to Iraq last year to calm the violence there. Beyond that, the general proposed a 45-day evaluation period, to be followed by an indefinite period of assessment before he would recommend any further pullouts.
"We think it makes sense to have some time, to let the dust settle, perhaps to do some adjustment of forces, re-evaluation," he told the House Armed Services Committee.
Wednesday's hearing marked the second day of testimony by Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq. Both described Iraq as being in a fragile state and warned that hard-fought security gains could slip if troops leave too soon. Democrats said pausing troop reductions would signal to the Iraqis that the United States is committed to the war indefinitely.
"Political reconciliation hasn't happened, and violence has leveled off and may be creeping back up," said Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chairman of the House committee. "So how can we encourage, if not force, the intransigent political leaders of Iraq to forge a real nation out of their base sectarian instincts?"
Republicans were considerably more optimistic about the situation in Iraq than they were last year. "No one can deny that the security situation in Iraq has improved," said Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, the No. 1 Republican on the committee.