The American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, faced hostility and scepticism from Republicans and Democrats on his second day of testimony to Congress yesterday.
Two presidential candidates – both Democrats committed to ending the war – made clear their fundamental disagreement with the continuing conflict.
The respectful reverence for the military commander of the previous day's hearings was put to one side as both Republicans and Democrats took issue with the Bush administration's strategy.
General Petraeus's proposal to withdraw 30,000 troops by next July was discounted as window-dressing that would keep the main force at last year's levels of 130,000 fighting troops. However, it was reported last night that President Bush is set to announce this week that he will implement the partial withdrawal suggested by the General.
Senator Barack Obama described the Bush policy as "a disastrous foreign policy mistake" and added: "We have now set the bar so low that modest improvement in what was a completely chaotic situation – to the point where now we just have the levels of intolerable violence that existed in June of 2006 – is considered success. And it's not."
Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, an enthusiastic supporter of the invasion in 2003, said: "Are we going to continue to invest American blood and treasure at the same rate we're doing now? For what? The President said: 'Let's buy time.' Buy time? For what?"
Both General Petraeus and America's ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that a continued US military presence would keep Iraq from falling apart in even greater bloodshed. "Though we both believe this effort can succeed, it will take time," General Petraeus said.
Senator Richard Lugar, a prominent Republican, said: "In my judgement, some type of success in Iraq is possible, but as policymakers we should acknowledge we are facing extraordinarily narrow margins for achieving our goals." Mr Lugar has called for a rapid and significant withdrawal of fighting troops in the coming months, flatly challenging Petraeus's recommendation to keep more than 130,000 troops.
General Petraeus, repeating the White House mantra of maintaining troop levels, said: "A premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences."
Some of the sharpest questioning came from Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. "We are sending our troops where they're not wanted, with no end in sight, in the middle of a civil war, in the middle of the mother of all mistakes," she said.
Senator Joseph Biden, one of the Democratic presidential candidates, said: "It's time to turn the corner... We should stop the surge and start bringing our troops home."