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Top U.S. general plans further troop reductions in Iraq

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  • NEW: Troop reductions by the fall possible, Gen. Petraeus says
  • Security situation in Iraq improving but progress is uneven, general says
  • General says challenges include Shiite and Sunni militants, Iran influence
  • Sen. Clinton will question generals; Sen. McCain will not attend hearings
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq who has been nominated to head American forces in the Middle East, said Thursday he hopes to make recommendations for further troop reductions in Iraq before he moves to his new post in September.

Petraeus, who is nominated to head the U.S. Central Command in the Middle East, and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, who has been tapped to fill Petraeus' position in Iraq, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on their nominations. Odierno is currently the No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq.

"I will be able to make recommendations at that time [September] for some further reductions," Petraeus said. "I don't want to imply that means a BCT [brigade combat team] or major combat formation, although it could.

"But I do believe there will be certain assets, as we are already looking at the picture right now, [that] we will be able to recommend can be either redeployed or no-deployed to the theater in the fall."

Petraeus also told senators that the situation in Iraq is improving but that challenges remain, including "Iran's malign influence."

"I believe we are in a significantly better position in Iraq now than we were in late 2006 and early 2007," Petraeus said.

Petraeus' observations were similar to those he made when he testified before congressional committees in April about the status of the war effort.

"The security situation is much improved, with overall attacks, civilian deaths, and ethno-sectarian violence all down substantially," said Petraeus, who oversaw the "surge" strategy that unfolded last year. Petraeus noted that the week ending on May 16 had the lowest level of security incidents in over four years.

However, Petraeus noted that "difficult challenges remain." They include "Iran's malign influence in Iraq" and the resiliency of Sunni and Shiite militants.

He said Iraq's security forces and government efforts are improving, but the United States needs to make sure "gains" are not reversed.

Petraeus defended a pause in troop deployments to assess conditions on the ground after the last of the "surge" troops are redeployed this summer.

"The withdrawal of over one-quarter of our combat power from Iraq will significantly reshape the battlefield. Our goal is to thin out our presence, not simply withdraw from areas, to ensure we help the ISF hold the security gains we have achieved together and set the conditions for additional progress," Petraeus said.

"A period of 45 days will enable us to reposture our forces, if needed, evaluate the effect of required adjustments, and avoid premature judgments about the impact of these changes. After this period of consolidation and evaluation, we can then complete an informed assessment and make appropriate recommendations."

Two committee members are seeking presidential nominations: Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona.

Clinton is planning to attend the hearing. McCain will not. Instead, he will attend campaign events in California.

All About David PetraeusRaymond OdiernoIraq WarAfghanistan War

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