Congress remains sharply divided over U.S. policy in Iraq, casting doubt on plans by leading senators to make a bipartisan recommendation to President Bush by January.
In the first hearing on Iraq since the Nov. 7 elections where Democrats won control of Congress, a top Army general swatted down both Democratic and Republican proposals to change course in Iraq.
Gen. John Abizaid, commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, said Wednesday the number of troops deployed to Iraq should not increased or decreased sharply. Instead, the United States should focus on accelerating the training of Iraqi forces so they can be pushed front and center into battle, he said.
"Our troop posture needs to stay where it is," Abizaid said.
Iraq stalemate remains
His remarks provided little to no fodder for lawmakers hoping to bolster their arguments on how to change Iraq policy, leaving Congress more or less in the same stalemate as before the hearing.
Leading Democrats, including Sen. Carl Levin, contend the United States should pull out some troops within the next few months to signal to the Iraqis that the U.S. commitment is limited and to encourage them to assume more responsibility.
In turn, Republican Sens. John Warner of Virginia, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina warn that a pullout of troops could be disastrous. Warner has not staked out a firm position yet, whereas McCain and Graham say Bush should send more troops to Iraq to settle the violence once and for all.
The rift leaves unclear how the two sides will reach consensus as promised within the next two months.
Levin and Warner say they plan to reach an accord on Iraq and deliver a bipartisan recommendation to the president by January. Leading the effort will be Levin, as the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and McCain, the top Republican on the panel. Warner, who is stepping down as chairman, will remain involved in the effort as the No. 2 ranking Republican on the panel.
Three studies pending
The congressional effort would be one of three assessments on Iraq policy under way in Washington. Bush's top military and diplomatic advisers are in the throes of scrubbing U.S. options in Iraq while an independent panel created by Congress - led by Bush family friend and Republican James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton - are cobbling together their suggestions after eight months of study.
The assessments offer a beacon of hope for Americans weary of the 3 1/2-year war. But foreign policy experts warn that any conclusion on Iraq will likely be unsatisfying.
"Formulating policy and coming up with an answer that satisfies everyone is an impossibility," said Phebe Marr, an Iraq historian who is advising Baker and Hamilton's panel.
So far, McCain and Levin can agree that Abizaid's testimony this week was unsatisfying. Both called the general's recommendation of accelerating the training of Iraqi forces an unacceptable status quo.
"I regret deeply that you seem to think that the status quo and the rate of progress we're making is acceptable," McCain told Abizaid. "I think most Americans do not."
Abizaid responded that he thought sending more troops was unsustainable because of the strain forces are under already, and that added deployments would have only a temporary effect. On the flip side, he said, pulling back troops could cause an uptick in sectarian violence and threaten the newly formed government.
Levin said he was not persuaded that keeping all 140,000 troops in Iraq would make the difference.
"I leave that hearing with a reinforced belief that a political settlement is the only way there's going to be a solution in Iraq and that that political settlement has got to be reached by the Iraqis," he said.