WASHINGTON — Iraq is a nation gripped by fear and struggling to meet security and political goals by September, U.S. officials cautioned from Baghdad on Thursday, dashing hopes in Congress that the country might turn a corner this summer.
They 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 top U.S. diplomat, 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 added, speaking by video link from Baghdad.
Delayed turning point
In briefings given to the news media as well as members of Congress, officials warned that making those strides could take more time than initially thought. One military general said a solid military assessment probably will not happen until November.
Some lawmakers have been hoping that Iraq will show more signs of stability this summer, long before they gear up for the 2008 elections.
For months, Republicans in particular have regarded September as a pivotal point: 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 after attending a classified briefing at the Pentagon by Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Early Thursday morning, some 50 House members and 40 senators were bused to the Pentagon for separate question-and-answer sessions with the two officials, who were in Baghdad.
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.
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In open testimony later in the day, Crocker downplayed the importance of meeting major reforms 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 being made 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, contending 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.
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.
No known alternatives
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."'
Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., told Crocker to forget Democratic demands to end the war and listen to the Republicans because the U.S. was not sticking around in Iraq.
"Time is running out in a big way," he said.
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