The top U.S. general overseeing the Iraq war recommended a 45-day pause in troop withdrawals once extra forces sent last year have completed their pullout in July.
Click play to watch report CBN News Reporter John Jessup's report.
During a Senate grilling Tuesday, Gen. David Petraeus said a "period of consolidation and evaluation" was needed after all extra combat troops ordered by President Bush last year have completely withdrawn.
"At the end of that period, we will commence a process of assessment to examine the conditions on the ground and, over time, determine when we can make recommendations for further reductions," Petraeus said.
Petraeus did not indicate any timetable for resuming troop reductions after the 45-day suspension. He cautioned that an overly rapid withdrawal might jeopardize recent security gains made by coalition forces.
"This process will be continuous, with recommendations for further reductions made as conditions permit," he added. "This approach does not allow establishment of a set withdrawal timetable. 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 hard a sacrificed so much to achieve."
Petraeus described the security situation in Iraq as improved since he last appeared before Congress in September, but it is still fragile and the gains reversible. He complained of Iranian support for insurgents.
No Prediction on Troop Reductions
Things got a little testy when the committee chairman pressed the general on when troop withdrawals would resume.
When questioned by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., Petraeus said he could not predict that, or how many U.S. troops would be in Iraq by the end of the year.
There currently are 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, according to The Associated Press. The Pentagon has estimated that when the scheduled troop withdrawals are completed in July, 140,000 troops will remain.
Sen. Levin said the Petraeus plan amounted to an open-ended suspension.
"What you've given to your chain of command is a plan which has no end to it," he said.
He then asked Petraeus if he would be able to recommend further troop cuts, when the 45-day evaluation period ends in September.
"It could be right then, or it could be longer," the general answered.
During the exchange with Levin, the hearing was briefly interrupted by one protester repeatedly shouting, "Bring them home!"
The protester was removed from the hearing room by two members of the Capitol Police force.
Crocker Agrees with Petraeus' Assessment
Also testifying was Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, who agreed with Petraeus' outlook of real, but fragile security gains.
Crocker said a long-term agreement the U.S. is now negotiating with Iraq will give a needed legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. troops.
Crocker said taht the U.S. negotiators want to make sure that the next U.S. president "arrives in office with a stable foundation upon which to base policy decisions."
The three major candidates for president - Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. - all serve on the panels for which Petraeus is providing testimony.
President Bush has said he intends to accept the recommendations from his Iraq commander.
On Thursday, Bush will make a speech about the progress of the war.
Source: The Associated Press