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Iraq troop pullout on course, general says

LOS ANGELES - Iraq remains fragile but is on course to allow the United States to decrease its presence as planned to 50,000 troops by September, the top U.S. soldier who oversees the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan told senators yesterday.

Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that success in Iraq was "fragile and reversible, but increasingly less so." The general was optimistic but cautious about recent political gains.

"Iraq still faces innumerable challenges, and they will be evident during what will likely be a difficult process as the newly elected Council of Representatives selects the next prime minister, president and speaker of the council," he said.

While there could be some reconfiguration of the U.S. troops in Iraq, Petraeus said he expected the military would be able to meet its goal of decreasing its presence, now at about 97,000.

"We still believe we will be able to stay on track to reach 50,000," Petraeus said in response to a question from Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn).

Petraeus predicted a hard year ahead in Afghanistan, where he expects U.S. forces will continue battling Taliban militants with "periodic setbacks." He also dismissed reports of talks among senior Taliban and the government, saying such a diplomatic solution was "probably unlikely unless [the Taliban] are feeling a greater amount of pressure."

The four-star Army general also told senators that "the time has come" for the military to rethink its policy toward gays. Petraeus stopped short of saying whether he believed if the military's policy of "don't ask, don't tell" is outdated or unfair.

Instead, he said that he wants to see the results of an internal study to know if allowing gays to serve openly might hurt recruiting and retention, or the military's ability to fight. With AP

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