WASHINGTON -- Missouri Rep. Ike Skelton, a self-described country lawyer, wasted little time Monday getting to the heart of the debate over continued U.S. presence in Iraq.
"Are we merely beating a dead horse?" he asked Gen. David Petraeus, the commanding general of the war, and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
Skelton, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, posed the question as he opened the much-anticipated hearing on the status of the war and political developments in Iraq.
"The witnesses must tell us why we should continue sending our young men and women to fight and die if the Iraqis won't make the tough sacrifices leading to reconciliation," Skelton said.
Petraeus told lawmakers that last winter's buildup of U.S. troops had met its military objectives "in large measure" and that he expects the withdrawal of about 30,000 combat troops by next summer, starting with the departure of a Marine unit at the end of this month.
Petraeus conceded the failure of the Iraqi government to bring political stability to the country. He presented charts showing the level of violence has declined since the troop buildup and said the Iraqi military is slowly gaining competence.
Those answers did little to ease the frustration of Skelton and other Democrats who are pushing for a more dramatic troop withdrawal.
Petraeus and Crocker appeared in the first of three hearings on Capitol Hill this week.
Skelton noted that since the surge was announced in January, "the Iraqi leaders have essentially made no progress in passing and implementing measures to bring about national reconciliation."
"Mr. Ambassador, why should we in Congress expect the next six months to be any different than it has been in the past?" Skelton asked Crocker.
Crocker said it would take more time before the impact of increased security is felt in a way that makes political compromise easier.
Separately, Missouri Republicans who heard Petraeus' report warned against premature withdrawal of forces from the region.
"If you pull out fairly rapidly, you will have millions of people killed in a civil war in Iraq and you will destabilize the region," said Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., in an interview.
Akin, a ranking member of the House Armed Services subcommittee on oversight and investigations, said the cost to "retreat and back out in some way will end up costing more than moving forward."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said in a statement that she hopes to find a middle-ground solution between a rapid drawdown of troops and continued presence "in the middle of a civil war."
"I think the logical thing is to change the mission, to change our mission from securing Iraq and providing stability to that nation to what we really should be doing, which is fighting terrorism," McCaskill said. "We should be fighting terrorism in Iraq with our troops on the ground, but at a much lower level than we have now."
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said the testimony only reinforced his support for Petraeus' efforts based on what he's heard from troops on the ground.
"Because of our new strategy, the momentum has clearly shifted to our favor in Iraq," Bond said.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, R-Mo., cautioned against "rushing to legislative judgment" and urged lawmakers to "craft a policy worthy of our troops' continued sacrifice and consistent with their single-minded determination to succeed."