WASHINGTON — The top military commander in Iraq faced the next commander in chief Tuesday, delivering a status report that could shape the campaign for the presidency.
All three candidates — Sens. John McCain, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama — sit on committees that received an assessment of the war's progress from Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.
Their political division over the war — McCain supports a continuation while the Democrats say they would withdraw troops — spilled over into the congressional hearing room. Clinton began her appearance by chastising McCain — without mentioning him by name — for saying Democratic calls for a withdrawal are irresponsible and show a "lack of leadership."
"I fundamentally disagree," Clinton said, reading from prepared remarks that aides said she wrote. "Rather, I think it could be fair to say that it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again."
Rarely does a congressional event draw the candidates away from the campaign trail in the midst of a closely fought race, but the general's appearance gave them an opportunity to restate their position on the war while interacting with the military brass one of them will command come January.
McCain and Clinton serve on the Armed Services Committee, which heard from Petraeus and Crocker in the morning. Obama serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which scheduled an afternoon round of testimony.
The four-term Arizona senator asked Petraeus about the Iraqi government's military operation to quell violence in Basra, recent attacks on the U.S.-occupied Green Zone, the threat al-Qaida poses in Iraq and Iranian involvement. He also asked Crocker about the likelihood of a long-term security arrangement in Iraq.
It a was a direct line of questioning that appeared designed to generate answers that would bolster McCain's argument that despite the recent flashes of violence, the United States should maintain its troop presence in Iraq and withdrawal — as Democrats favor — would prove disastrous.
At the same time, McCain was able to put both officials on record that a certain level of troops is likely to remain in Iraq for years to come. Crocker agreed with that assessment. McCain has said U.S. troops could be in Iraq for 100 years, citing the half-century or longer U.S. presence in South Korea and other parts of the world where forces are based to deter conflict, not fight one.
Democrats have criticized McCain, contending that he backs a 100-year war.
Earlier, in his opening statement, McCain put a positive spin on developments in Iraq over the past year, saying security has improved dramatically and political reconciliation has moved forward since the United States shifted course from what he called four years of mismanagement that brought the U.S.-led war "almost to the point of no return."
He argued that "much more needs to be done" on security, political and economic fronts, but that "we are no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."
"I do not want to keep our troops in Iraq a minute longer than necessary to secure our interests there. Our goal — my goal — is an Iraq that no longer needs American troops," McCain said in a nine-minute statement. "And I believe we can achieve that goal, perhaps sooner than many imagine. But I also believe that to promise a withdrawal of our forces, regardless of the consequences, would constitute a failure of political and moral leadership."
HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON:
Clinton argued there has been a lack of political progress in Iraq. She said keeping forces in Iraq diverts military resources from other needs around the world. She also cited studies showing the mental strain on troops serving repeated deployment is growing, with more than a quarter showing signs of anxiety, depression and acute stress.
She placed the blame not just on President Bush, but also supporters of his policy — in other words, McCain.
"The administration and supporters of the administration's policy often talk about the cost of leaving Iraq, yet ignore the greater costs of continuing the same failed policy," she said. "I think it's time to begin an orderly process of withdrawing of our troops."
She pressed Petraeus on what conditions would have to exist for him to recommend to the president that the current strategy is not working.
"It's not a mathematical exercise," he responded.
"The most important issue is still the one that was asked in September which is how has this war made us safer and at what point do we know that there is success so we can start bringing our troops home," Obama told NBC's "Today Show."
"My belief is that we are not in a situation where staying another 10, 15 or 20 years is going to change the fundamentals on the ground," Obama said.
"What we have not seen is the Iraqi government using the space that was created not only by our troops but by the standdown of the militias in places like Basra, to use that to move forward on a political agenda that could actually bring stability," Obama said.
Obama, who leads Clinton in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, won't get his turn to speak until near the end of the day. Only four Democrats rank lower than him on the Foreign Relations Committee, but aides said he planned to attend most of the session to hear Petraeus.
Appearing on NBC, Obama also criticized McCain for supporting the war from the beginning and indefinitely into the future. "John McCain has not offered any clear point at which he suggests it's time for us to move our troops home," Obama said.
Associated Press Writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.