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Pressure on for Petraeus

Acknowledges lawmakers' frustration

General David Petraeus, shown in Washington yesterday, said the political clock in Washington is ticking significantly faster than the pace of his counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. General David Petraeus, shown in Washington yesterday, said the political clock in Washington is ticking significantly faster than the pace of his counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. (Win McNamee/Getty images)

WASHINGTON - After finishing two grueling days of the most charged testimony by a US military commander since General William Westmoreland went before Congress at the height of the Vietnam War, General David Petraeus said yesterday that the political clock in Washington is ticking significantly faster than the pace of his counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq.

In an interview yesterday, Petraeus said he and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the top American diplomat in Iraq, sensed the impatience among many Democrats - and a growing number of Republicans - with the limited progress made by the additional "surge" of 30,000 US troops in Baghdad. The general, who presented a much anticipated progress report with Crocker before the House and the Senate, said he would keep the legislators' concerns in mind as he returned to command the troops in Iraq later this week.

"I come away with a very heightened appreciation of the frustration," Petraeus said. "We share that impatience. Nobody is more impatient than those of us who've been at this and putting everything on the line to do it."

After a packed press conference at the National Press Club and a schedule crammed with interviews, Petraeus spoke with the Globe about his congressional testimony and the charged political backdrop in which it took place, as well as the increasingly emotional debate in America about the war.

The general said he believed he and Crocker had succeeded in their mission to stress to skeptical lawmakers and a doubtful public that defeating a counterinsurgency in Iraq will take more time; that the increase in the number of troops in Baghdad has been effective; and that the US military can begin a staggered reduction of forces, bringing as many as 30,000 troops home by next summer.

President Bush will formally announce his plan to withdraw 30,000 troops in a televised speech tonight. In January, Bush announced he was adding the same number of troops to the US forces in Baghdad to quell sectarian violence.

"I think we had a fair hearing, and I think we were listened to" on Capitol Hill, said Petraeus, who looked unfazed by the marathon schedule of hearings before the House and the Senate, where a handful of presidential candidates from both parties peppered him with questions.

The general's most dramatic exchange during those hearings was perhaps one with Senator John Warner, an influential Virginia Republican who has announced his retirement. A World War II veteran and former Navy secretary, Warner had supported Bush's decision to invade Iraq but has recently turned against the war.

Removing his reading glasses and staring at Petraeus, Warner, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee asked, "If we continue with what you have laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that that is making America safer?"

"Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," Petraeus answered.

Warner was not satisfied. "Does that make America safer?" he asked.

"Sir," Petraeus answered, "I don't know, actually. I have not sat down and sorted that out in my own mind. What I have focused on and been riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the Multinational Force in Iraq."

Petraeus said he did not take the exchange with Warner personally. The give-and-take, he said, was part of "an honest assessment of the situation" in Iraq.

But Senator Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, jumped on Petraeus's acknowledgment in a statement on his website yesterday.

"It's a tragedy that the question of whether or not our strategy of escalating the presence of US forces in Iraq's civil war will make us safer was not asked before we put it into action," Dodd's statement said. "As a result we've seen the bloodiest summer since we've been in Iraq and no noticeable political progress."

Beyond mounting criticism from lawmakers like Dodd, Petraeus has been the subject of personal attacks from antiwar activists. The most glaring example came from the liberal activist group, MoveOn.org, which took out a full-page ad in The New York Times on Monday.

The headline beneath a picture of the general read, "General Petraeus or General Betray Us?"

More attacks came yesterday from the organizers of a Sept. 15 "March to Stop the War" in Washington.

Tina Richards, an antiwar activist who helped organize a competing press conference at the National Press Building after Petraeus's briefing, said the highly decorated, four-star general "is just being used as another tool for the Bush administration."

After 33 years in the Army during which he has risen to its highest wartime command, Petraeus said he can handle the personal attacks, adding that tough criticism comes with the turf. He mentioned a supportive e-mail he received recently from an "old friend." The message, Petraeus said, included a poem by Rudyard Kipling about the British struggles to maintain its empire:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/ Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch/ If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you; If all men count with you, but none too much/ If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds' worth of distance run/ Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it/ And - which is more -you'll be a Man, my son!

"I took some strength from it," Petraeus said.

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