WASHINGTON - Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, President Bush's new choice as the top commander in Iraq, told Congress yesterday that the new military strategy to secure Baghdad could work and that he had asked that the additional troops the administration promised be deployed as quickly as possible.

In his first public comments about Bush's plan to send about 21,500 troops, the general described the situation in Iraq as "dire" but not hopeless. He asserted that the "persistent presence" of American and Iraqi forces in strife-ridden Baghdad neighborhoods was a necessary step, but also cautioned that the mission would not succeed if the Iraqi government did not carry out its program of political reconciliation.

"The way ahead will be neither quick nor easy, and undoubtedly there will be tough days," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "We face a determined, adaptable, barbaric enemy. He will try to wait us out. In fact, any such endeavor is a test of wills, and there are no guarantees."

But much of the hearing focused not on details of the strategy about to unfold in Iraq but rather on the political debate within the Senate over resolutions that would signal disapproval of the new strategy.

When Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), who has long favored sending more troops to Iraq, asked if approval of a Senate resolution assailing Bush's new strategy could hurt the morale of American troops, the general replied: "It would not be a beneficial effect, sir."

Asked by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I., Conn.), who also backs the plan, if a resolution would also "give the enemy some encouragement" by suggesting that the American people were divided, Petraeus replied: "That's correct, sir."

That answer sparked admonishments by critics of Bush's strategy, who insisted that the point of the Senate resolutions is to put pressure on the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to follow through on its political program and take more responsibility for its own security.

"We know this policy is going forward," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.). "We know the troops are moving. We know that we're not likely to stop this escalation. But we are going to do everything we can to send a message to our government and the Iraqi government that they had better change, because the enemy we are confronting is adaptable."

By the end of the hearing, Petraeus sought to extricate himself from the political tussle by insisting that as a military man he did not want to take a position on the Senate debate. "There are a number of resolutions out there," he said. "Learning that minefields are best avoided and gone around rather than walked through on some occasions, I'd like to leave that one there."

Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the panel, said later that he was satisfied that the general had not intended to involve himself in the debate. The episode did not appear to have any ill effect on the prospects for Petraeus' confirmation.

The new military strategy that Petraeus would oversee calls for five additional brigades in Baghdad and two additional battalions in Anbar province in western Iraq.

Under the current deployment schedule, it will be May before all five of the brigades are in Iraq, but Petraeus indicated that he would like them sooner, saying that he had asked the Pentagon to dispatch them "as rapidly as possible."

If the troops are sent according to the current schedule, Petraeus said that the United States might know by late summer if the plan to clear contested neighborhoods of insurgents and militias, hold them with American and Iraqi security forces, and win public support through reconstruction was working.

Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus

Age: 54, born Nov. 7, 1952.

Experience: Commanding general of the U.S. Army Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., 2005-present; first commander of the Multinational

Security Transition Command in Iraq, 2004-05; commanded NATO training mission in Iraq, 2004-05; various positions, including commander of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault), assistant chief of staff for operations of the NATO Stabilization Force and deputy commander of the U.S. Joint Interagency Counterterrorism Task Force in Bosnia.

Education: Bachelor's degree, U.S. Military Academy, 1974; master's degree, Princeton University, 1985; doctoral degree, Princeton, 1987.

Family: Wife, Holly; two children.

SOURCE: Associated Press EndText