The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq says there is hard evidence of Iranian efforts to establish a permanent militia presence in Iraq, and that Iraqi leaders have addressed the issue in meetings in Tehran.  General David Petraeus made the comment at a news conference, after two days of testimony before the Congress.  VOA's Al Pessin reports from Washington.

General Petraeus says the capture of key insurgent operatives in mainly Shiite southern Iraq, including a senior official of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, resulted in irrefutable evidence of Iran's efforts. 

"This is evidentiary," Petraeus said. "It is not just intelligence.  It rises to the level of evidence, particularly what we captured when we got the hard drives of the computers from the individuals that we picked up."

The general says the evidence convinced Iraqi leaders, even though most of them are Shiite Muslims, that they should be concerned about Iran's effort to establish a long-term armed presence in Iraq.

"We have shown that to Iraqi leaders, several of whom then went to Iran and made their case quite forcefully about their concern of Iranian involvement," Petraeus said.

General Petraeus says the captured Hezbollah official said he could not have provided money, sophisticated weapons and training to Iraqi insurgents without Iranian support, and sometimes direction.  Iran has denied U.S. charges it is fomenting violence in Iraq.

General Petraeus also criticized Syria for allowing foreign fighters to enter Iraq from its territory.

The general also defended troop reduction recommendations he made, which President Bush is expected to endorse in a speech scheduled for Thursday.  Critics say the general has only accepted the scheduled end of the troop surge next spring and summer.

General Petraeus acknowledged it would have been difficult for the U.S. military to replace those forces without over-stressing its combat units, but he said it could have been done.

"I could very easily have requested, just for starters in September, (that) we need a replacement for the Marine Expeditionary Unit.  We could request replacement for the other forces," Petraeus said. "I could have put demands on the services, had we felt the absolute imperative to do that."

The general said the troops are coming out of Iraq more quickly than they had to.  But, as he did in his congressional testimony, he declined to predict how quickly U.S. troops might be able to leave Iraq beyond next July, when he plans to have reduced the current force to the pre-surge level of 130,000. 

He also said the U.S. commitment is not open-ended, and if political and security progress do not continue it will be difficult for him to recommend maintaining the U.S. troop presence in its current form when he makes his next report in March.

Standing with General Petraeus, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, said the surge has been important in allowing for some slow progress among Iraqi politicians toward solving their problems through negotiations rather than violence.  He said the pace must increase, but as long as there is progress the United States must continue its efforts.

"We need to demonstrate some strategic patience, resolve and commitment because this will be a long process," Crocker said.

Ambassador Crocker called for Iraq's neighbors to do more to help.  He expressed satisfaction that Saudi Arabia will soon reopen its embassy in Baghdad, and he called on other Arab states to do the same.  He also noted that coming meetings in Istanbul and New York are designed to engage countries in the Middle East and beyond in helping to establish stability in Iraq and to contribute to its reconstruction.

The ambassador also acknowledged that the debate over U.S. policy on Iraq will continue, but he said he came away from two days of sometimes tough questioning in Congress "somewhat encouraged" by the members' thoughtful approach and willingness to listen.