The top U.S. general in Iraq said Tuesday security in Iraq is "significantly better" since his last appearance before Congress seven months ago, but noted that progress was "fragile" and "reversible."
Gen. David Petraeus appeared before the U.S. Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees yesterday and recommended that troop withdrawals from Iraq be postponed for 45 days after July when its forces will be reduced to 140,000 or pre-surge levels, according to CNN.
He refused to say if further troop pullout would resume after the pause, but repeated his long-held stance that further withdrawal would be based on conditions on the ground.
"This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable," he said. "However it does provide the flexibility those of us on the ground need to preserve the still-fragile security gains our troopers have fought so far and sacrifice so much to achieve."
"War is not a linear phenomenon," Petraeus noted. "It's a calculus, not arithmetic."
But frustrated senators and congressmen alike have challenged the general to explain why U.S. troops should stay in Iraq and continue the unpopular war which recently turned five years old.
"We and the American people must ask: Why should we stay in Iraq in large numbers?" Rep. Ike Skelton, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, asked Wednesday during day two of the Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Croker testimony on Capitol Hill.
"I hope you can also explain the next strategy," Skelton said. "The counterinsurgency strategy worked tactically, but the surge forces are going home. Political reconciliation hasn't happened, and violence has leveled off and may be creeping back."
Although U.S. officials may debate about levels of troops and military strategies, one issue that is difficult to deny is the increased violence against Iraq's Christian minority.
Just last week a Syrian Orthodox priest, Father Yusef Adel, was murdered in Baghdad. Adel's death occurred less than three weeks after Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Faraj Raho – Iraq's second most senior Catholic cleric – was found dead after being kidnapped for two weeks.
Moreover, violent campaigns against church buildings have increased with an astounding number of 10 Iraqi churches bombed within a span of two weeks earlier this year.
Unyielding assaults against Christians have forced the country's tiny Christian population to flee their homeland in droves. Christians, although making up only three percent of the population, is said to compose nearly half the refugees fleeing Iraq, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
There are now only about 600,000 Iraqi Christians remaining in the country, down from 1.2 million before the war.
Religious freedom and human rights groups have blamed the United States and other countries with troops in Iraq for not doing enough to protect the Christian minority population, which they warn will be extinct if something is not done soon.
But in regards to the general violence in Iraq, Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker laid blame on Iran, which they accused of fueling ongoing conflict by "funding, training, arming and directing" Shiite Muslim militias in clashes against Iraqi government troops.
Iraq's ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Samir Sumaidaie, also mentioned the threat of Iran to Iraq on Tuesday while speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"I say to them, yes, I understand your pain, but it is not something you can get out of so easily," Sumaidaie said about U.S. troop withdrawal. "This is the wrong time unless you want to hand the country on a plate to Iran."
Sen. John McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee and the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, supports keeping a high level of U.S. troops in Iraq if necessary. McCain was one of the leading advocates of the troop surge last year which lowered incidents of violence in Iraq.
"Success, the establishment of peaceful, democratic state, the defeat of terrorism – this success is within reach," McCain contends. "Congress must not choose to lose in Iraq. We must choose to succeed."
President Bush plans to address the nation on Thursday, when he is expected to adopt Petraeus' plan.
The Iraq war has claimed more than 4,000 U.S. lives and cost an estimated $600 billion since 2003.