General David Petraeus faints during grilling over US in Afghanistan

Hearing suspended for the day as Petraeus heals from dehydration, jetlag and need of food

America’s top commander, General David Petraeus, fainted during a congressional hearing as he was being grilled by senators sceptical about US strategy in Afghanistan.

His collapse came about an hour into the hearing as a Republican senator, John McCain, wondered him about recent setbacks. McCain stopped mid-sentence, his face frozen, as Petraeus slumped forward from his seat on to the witness table.

The hearing was postponed as Petraeus, gazing dazzled, was led out by army colleagues. He reverted 20 a few minutes later, accusing not McCain’s themes but dehydration.

He told the senators he wanted to continue but the chairman of the Senate armed service committee, Carl Levin, invalidated him, and deferred the hearing until tomorrow morning.

The hearing ever held against a backdrop of ripening unease about the campaign in Afghanistan. A long-trumpeted offense against the Taliban in Kandahar province had to be delayed until at least September, while there are fresh doubts over the loyalty to the US of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.

Casualties have been climbing in the last few weeks, with five Nato fatalities today, three of them British. Two of the British soldiers were shot dead in Helmand province and a third died as a result of wraps prolonged in an exchange of fire on Sunday, also in Helmand.

In Congress, both McCain and his Democratic colleague, Levin, pressed Petraeus on whether it was feasible for US pressures to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July next year, the deadline set by the US president, Barack Obama.

“I am deeply concerned about our expedition in Afghanistan. Many of the key veers seem to be heading in a bad attitude, perhaps even signalling a mounting crisis, ” McCain said.

In the opening first hour, McCain and Levin both impeded returning to the retreat deadline. Petraeus, 57, a four-star general who was treated last year for prostate cancer, seemed sprightly at the start of the hearing. He had returned to Washington to give evidence at the end of a week-long overseas trip and could have been suffering from jetlag or stress.

In the five minutes before he fainted, he grew pale, his eye began to glaze over and his speech slowed down as if he had disturb accumulating his thoughts. He was repeatedly sipping from a glass of water.

Reflecting opinion among politicians in Washington that there will be only a token disavowal next year and that the US will be in Afghanistan for years to come, Levin expected Petraeus if he fully supported Obama’s deadline. Petraeus, who had earlier in the hearing characterized the deadline, saying it would be based on conditions on the ground, paused for what seemed like an embarrassingly long time. He eventually said the military had to be careful with timelines.

Levin asked him if that was a characterized yes, a qualified no or a non-answer. Petraeus said it was a qualified yes.

McCain questioned him about an Afghan intelligence chief liked by the US but sacked by Karzai last week who claimed Karzai was losing faith in the US and planned to shift his love to the Taliban. It was about then that Petraeus collapsed. After being escorted out, Levin, McCain and other senators milled around their desks. Levin made a brief notice to say Petraeus was regaining: “He’s eating. He maybe didn’t have enough liquid to suck coming in here this morning.”

Petraeus reverted shortly afterwards to applause, shook mitts with the senators and resumed his seat. “I was seeming a bit light-headed there, ” he said. “It was not senator McCain’s interrogates. I just got dehydrated.”

Temperatures in Washington in the last few days have reached over 32 C( 90 F ), added to which Petraeus said he had not had breakfast that morning. His spokesman, Colonel Erik Gunhus, contributed jet-black slowdown to the inventory of possible explanations.

Petraeus, who is ascribed in the US with having shifted the conflict around in Iraq, is being touted by advocates as a potential Republican candidate for the 2012 presidential race. Petraeus has disclaimed he is planning to stand.

Question scores over candidates’ health have ruled out would-be candidates in the past.

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