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Seeking confirmation, Petraeus hints troop cuts

'We are on our way to victory,' Bush says

WASHINGTON - Gen. David Petraeus said yesterday that he's likely to recommend further troop reductions in Iraq but won't promise more details until fall - timing that plunges the four-star Army general into the heart of this year's presidential elections.

U.S. voters likely will be deciding between a GOP candidate committed to keeping troops in Iraq as long as Petraeus and other ground commanders say is necessary and a Democratic challenger who supports the immediate withdrawal of forces.

Petraeus said conditions on the ground will still dictate his decision. But by September, when he is slated to assume control of U.S. Central Command, "my sense is that I will be able to make a recommendation at that time for some further reductions," he said, cautioning that he wasn't implying that that means a particular brigade or major combat formation.

In Iraq yesterday, meanwhile, a U.S. helicopter strike north of Baghdad killed eight people in a vehicle, including at least two children, Iraqi officials said, insisting that all the dead were civilians. The U.S. military said six had been al Qaeda militants but acknowledged that two children had been killed.

In a speech at Fort Bragg, N.C., President Bush said that progress in Iraq was undeniable and that "we are on our way to victory." He also said he looked forward to hearing what his generals would recommend, and he didn't tip his hand as to what he wants 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 at the Army base, where he was addressing 17,000 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

In recent months, Petraeus has helped to tame growing opposition to the war in Congress by providing measured assessments of progress and warning that an exodus of U.S. troops would result in chaos.

His unflappable style was on display again yesterday in a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to confirm him for the Central Command post. The hearing was considerably less contentious than his past appearances on Capitol Hill and even came with an endorsement by the panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, and Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Also receiving a warm reception was Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, expected to replace Petraeus as the top commander in Iraq. Odierno previously served 15 months in Iraq as Petraeus' deputy.

The Senate signed off yesterday on $165 billion in new spending to fund fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan through next spring.

In a political rebuke to Bush, though, two dozen Republicans backed the addition of tens of billions of dollars in domestic spending to the supplemental war funding bill.

Bush has threatened to veto the bill due to the additional tab, which includes an estimated $51.6 billion, over 10 years, in new money to help Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans pay for college tuition.

Nearly 1.6 million U.S. forces have served in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Of those, about half - 837,458 - have left the military.

The bill, which passed the Senate by a veto-proof margin of 75-22, also includes an extension of unemployment benefits worth an estimated $11.1 billion over 10 years.

The legislation next goes to the House, which last week rejected a similar version of the so-called emergency-supplemental-war- spending bill.

If approved, the money would bring to $818 billion the amount the country has spent, or will spend, on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan through next spring, according to calculations made by the Senate Appropriations Committee and the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

The strike that killed the children came as the U.S. was trying to ease Iraqi anger over the shooting of a copy of the Quran by an American sniper, who used Islam's holy book for target practice.

In Afghanistan yesterday, a NATO soldier and two demonstrators were killed at a violent protest over the Quran shooting. *