WASHINGTON Gen. David Petraeus said that by September he could recommend further troop reductions in Iraq if security continues to improve.
The fall assessment of the politically unpopular war would put the Iraq debate front-and-center in this year's presidential elections, and possibly influence Iraqi provincial elections expected this November.
Petraeus has previously been reluctant to say when his next assessment of troop levels would be. In a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, the four-star Army general said conditions on the ground will still determine whether more troops can come home.
But, he noted, "My sense is that I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for some further reductions.
"I don't want to imply that that means" a particular brigade or major combat formation, he added. "But I do believe there will be certain assets that, as we are already looking at the picture right now, we'll be able to recommend can be either redeployed or not deployed to the theater in the fall," he said.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, responded: "That's good news to most of us."
On a less-optimistic note, Petraeus said it is unlikely that Iraqi security forces will take the lead in all provinces this year, as was recently predicted by the Defense Department. Petraeus said events in the past month and a half alluding to a spike in violence in Basra have pushed that goal to 2009.
Petraeus also said that provincial elections are likely to be delayed by one month this fall, taking place in November instead of October.
Petraeus has spent nearly four years in Iraq, most recently as commander of U.S. troops there. He would replace Navy Adm. William Fallon as the senior commander of troops in the Middle East, which includes Afghanistan. Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who served as Petraeus' deputy for 15 months, is slated to replace Petraeus as the senior military officer in Iraq.
If confirmed, Petraeus said one of his first trips would be to Pakistan, where terrorists are operating along the Afghan border.
"I think that the key need is to asses whether the overall concept that is guiding (operations) on the Pakistani side in particular, or course, is adequate or not," he said.
Levin, D-Mich., a staunch war opponent, indicated he supports the promotion of the two generals. Their confirmation would enable unprecedented continuity of leadership in Iraq by officers whose knowledge of the war effort is unparalleled, he said.
"Regardless of one's view of the wisdom of the policy that took us to Iraq in the first place and has kept us there over five years, we owe Gen. Petraeus and Gen. Odierno a debt of gratitude for the commitment, determination and strength that they brought to their areas of responsibility," Levin said.
"And regardless how long the administration may choose to remain engaged in the strife in that country, our troops are better off with the leadership these two distinguished soldiers provide," he added.
President Bush made a pitch for Petraeus' confirmation from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he was speaking to 17,000 paratroopers from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. He said Petraeus has done "a brilliant job" in Iraq and was "my first and only choice" to lead Central Command.
"The United States Senate must give him a fair hearing and they must confirm him as quickly as possible," Bush said.
The president said he looked forward to hearing what his generals recommend about troop levels later this year, and didn't tip his hand as to what he prefers to hear. "My message to our commanders is you will have all the troops, you will have all the resources you need to win in Iraq," Bush said.
Petraeus also said in his testimony on Thursday that the existence of secret nuclear facilities in Syria is troubling.
The U.S. must convince Syria that sparking a nuclear arms race in the region, harboring terrorists and trying to undermine stability in Lebanon are not in its own interest, he said. He added that he hopes the peace talks between Syria and Israel mark a positive step.
Syria denies it has the suspected nuclear facilities.