WASHINGTON - In a daylong grilling by senators demanding answers to the resolution of the US occupation in Iraq, the chief American commander there had one absolute certainty even before he testified: One of his questioners is going to be the next president and will decide the fate of the Iraq mission.
All three major presidential candidates - Republican John McCain and Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama - displayed their contrasting views and styles in questioning General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Senate committee hearings on the progress toward military and political stability in Iraq.
McCain offered the rosiest view of the success of the troop buildup last year and delivered quick questions that elicited responses that fit his campaign pronouncements on the looming danger of Iran and the continuing threat from Al Qaeda in Iraq. The answers also supported McCain's assessment - derided roundly by his Democratic opponents - that the US military is likely to have a presence in Iraq for some time.
The United States, he said, is "no longer staring into the abyss of defeat, and we can now look ahead to the genuine prospect of success."
But success, McCain warned, demands staying in Iraq until the country is stable. "This means rejecting, as we did in 2007, the calls for a reckless and irresponsible withdrawal of our forces at the moment when they are succeeding," said the Arizona senator, whose extended opening remarks as senior Republican on the Armed Services Committee drew hisses and bellowed objections from demonstrators in the room.
Clinton and Obama, meanwhile, used their time to reiterate their pledges to begin withdrawing combat troops from Iraq once in the White House and completing the withdrawal during 2010 - and both delivered their remarks in ways that addressed criticisms of each on the Iraq issue.
Clinton, who antiwar Democrats contend has not fully accounted for her 2002 vote authorizing the war, began her questions with a speech against Bush administration policy. Obama, whom Clinton has dismissed as long on rhetoric and short on specifics, opened with a series of detailed questions about the internal Shi'ite conflict in Basra and the extent to which Iranian influence in Iraq should be tolerated.
Clinton took a quick shot at McCain, saying the human and monetary costs of staying in Iraq were being ignored by those, like McCain, who warned of the costs of leaving. "I think it could be fair to say it might well be irresponsible to continue the policy that has not produced the results that have been promised time and time again," Clinton said.
When she was done challenging McCain and President Bush, Clinton sought to pin down Petraeus on the extent and nature of the US security mission in Iraq.
What conditions, exactly, would have to be met before American military leaders determined the military strategy was not working, Clinton asked.
"It's not a mathematical exercise," Petraeus responded.
And why - if the Iraqi parliament gets to weigh in on whether the United States has the legal authority to keep a security presence in Iraq - should the US Congress not have the same right? "It seems odd," Clinton told the general.
After the hearing, Clinton said she heard no indications that the Bush administration was looking for a way to extricate the United States from Iraq. "It certainly sounded like an open-ended commitment to me," she told reporters.
Obama was nonconfrontational as he questioned Petraeus and Crocker at the afternoon Foreign Relations Committee hearing. But he made clear he believes that the war is a "massive strategic blunder" and that the United States should begin a troop withdrawal. Obama asked the witnesses whether the standards for "success" in Iraq - political stability, no presence of Al Qaeda, and no dangerous influence from Iran - are perhaps too high.
Those benchmarks, he said, create "the possibility our staying for 20 to 30 years."
Leaving the campaign trail for the hearings gave all three contenders the rare opportunity to be both senator and prospective commander in chief. The hearings also hinted at the fall campaign.
Republicans peppered Petraeus and Crocker with questions about bringing an end to the unpopular war, but praised them for military advances in Iraq and underscored the US national security interests in achieving a stable Iraq.
Democrats, aware that many voters have turned their attention from the war to the faltering economy, hammered the top US officials in Iraq on why the United States is still spending tens of billions of dollars for rebuilding and safeguarding Iraq, instead of forcing Iraq to use its extensive oil revenues.
Neither Democratic candidate received celebrity treatment from their respective committees' chairmen, with both mostly forced to wait their turns. But a senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee inadvertently boosted Obama as he demanded to know whether the Iraqi government understood that the United States was on its way out of Iraq.
"We have someone sitting across here, maybe the next president of the United States," George Voinovich of Ohio said, drawing a cheer from the back of the hearing room.
Joseph R. Biden Jr., the committee chairman and a Delaware Democrat who ran for the nomination himself, asked Voinovich not to "reference the senator from Illinois," especially because Biden had earlier ordered a few unruly demonstrators ejected.
"I can just see the headline in the
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