WASHINGTON (AP) -“Baghdad, can you hear the U.S. Senate?”
Democratic chairman Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., asked the question when a video link temporarily failed Thursday during testimony by the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq.
The question was on the minds of many lawmakers who say progress in Iraq is moving too slow and that U.S. troop withdrawals are inevitable.
U.S. officials in Baghdad cautioned Thursday that significant gains in Iraq may not be seen for several more months, dashing hopes in Congress that the war-torn country would turn a corner this summer.
One general said not to expect a solid judgment on the U.S. troop buildup until November.
“If there is one word, I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq – on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level – that word would be ‘fear,”‘ Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“For Iraq to move forward at any level, that fear is going to have to be replaced with some level of trust and confidence and that is what the effort at the national level is about,” he said by video link from the Iraqi capital.
In briefings to the news media as well as members of Congress, officials warned that making those strides could take more time than first thought.
Most lawmakers have hoped Iraq would show more signs of stability this summer, long before the 2008 U.S. elections.
For months, Republicans in particular have regarded September as pivotal. If substantial gains could not be found by then, they say President Bush would have to rethink his military strategy, which relies on 158,000 U.S. troops.
“I’m not optimistic,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said of the September assessment. She spoke after attending a classified briefing at the Pentagon by Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
While bruised by the Iraq debate, Bush has thwarted repeated attempts by Democrats to force the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Despite wide opposition to the war, the administration appears confident that congressional Republicans will continue to stick by the White House to prevent a pullout.
The administration also tries to minimize the importance of the September report, trying to make clear it is not the final judgment.
Beyond that, the administration is saying U.S. forces will play a role in Iraq through the end of Bush’s presidency, in January 2009.
Early Thursday morning, some 50 House members and 40 senators took buses to the Pentagon for separate question-and-answer sessions with Crocker and Petraeus.
According to attendees, lawmakers were told that the political process was slow moving and that it would be very difficult for Iraq to meet its 18 reform goals in the next 45 days.
A recent administration progress report found Iraq was making some progress in eight areas.
In open testimony later Thursday, Crocker played down the importance of meeting major changes right away and said less ambitious goals, such as restoring electricity to a neighborhood, can be just as beneficial. Crocker also pointed toward political headway at the local level and said agreements there may inspire further cooperation among sects.
The much cited benchmarks “do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important – Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation,” he said.
Crocker also warned against a withdrawal of U.S. troops. He contended that such a move could increase sectarian attacks and create a “comfortable operating environment” for al-Qaida.
On the military front, Petraeus told members of Congress in the private meeting that he had seen some “tactical momentum” since infusing Baghdad with additional U.S. soldiers.
Petraeus’ deputy in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, later told reporters he would need beyond September to tell if improvements represent long-term trends.
“In order to do a good assessment I need at least until November,” he said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who attended the closed session at the Pentagon, said officials in Baghdad clearly do not see September as the turning point many do in Washington. Instead, she said, Crocker and Petraeus have described a process by which Iraq will slowly make enough progress to stand on its own.
Feinstein, D-Calif., and other Democrats say the only way to speed up the process is to put more pressure on the Iraqi government – specifically by beginning to withdraw U.S. military support.
“The bottom line is you have a government that is dysfunctional,” she said.
Feinstein was not alone in voicing her skepticism. According to aides on Capitol Hill, Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., said in the private briefing that it seemed Iraq would miss its goals by September and asked frankly what the administration would do next.
The implication was that Congress, including GOP members who have loyally backed the war, will want to see a new tack if no improvement is made by then.
Bond declined to discuss the meeting but said in a statement that he believed Petraeus was on the right track.
“I agree with him that the first step to victory is establishing security in Iraq,” he said.
According to a senior defense official, Petraeus also was asked by members of Congress about challenges if he were told in the fall to begin withdrawing one U.S. brigade per month. Petraeus said he has to plan for such possibilities, taking into account how each move would impact other U.S. forces and the Iraqis.
Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he was not engaged in any contingency plans.
“The short answer is, I’m not aware of any effort and my focus is implementation of ‘plan A,”‘ he said.
Democrats and several Republicans, including Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio, say they think Bush should start planning for the inevitable.
“Regardless of what the (September) report says … let’s begin now to prepare for what comes next,” said Lugar, the panel’s ranking GOP member. “It is likely to be changes in military missions and force levels as the year proceeds.”
Added Voinovich: “If I were president, “I’d put them (Iraqi politicians) in the room and say ‘We’re on the way out of there.”‘
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor and White House Correspondent Terence Hunt contributed to this report.