The commanding general of the multinational corps in Iraq says his statement to a Senate hearing was not meant to suggest a need to delay the planned September judgment reporting date on the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq.
Thursday Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno - a deputy to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq - told reporters after a Senate hearing that he would need beyond September to tell if improvements in Iraq represent long-term trends.
“In order to do a good assessment I need at least until November,” Odierno said Thursday.
Today Odierno issued a statement saying, "There is no intention to push our reporting requirement beyond September. Nothing I said yesterday should be interpreted to suggest otherwise. My reference to November was simply suggesting that as we go forward beyond September, we will gain more understanding of trends."
For months September has been cast as a pivotal time for determining the course of the war in Iraq.
Petraeus and other officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and briefed reporters on Thursday. Making strides toward security and political goals could take more time than first thought, they warned.
A stark assessment came via video link from the Iraqi capital when Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, told the committee that Iraq is gripped by fear and struggling to meet security and political goals by September.
“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,”’ Crocker said. “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.”
Sen. Collins: ‘I’m not optimistic’
Most lawmakers have hoped that Iraq would show more signs of stability this summer, long before the 2008 U.S. elections. Republicans in particular have thought that, if substantial gains could not be found by September, then 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 Petraeus and Crocker.
The Bush administration has tried to minimize the importance of the progress report due in September, 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.
Some 50 House members and 40 senators took buses to the Pentagon for separate question-and-answer sessions with Crocker and Petraeus. Lawmakers said they were told that the political process was moving slowly and that it would be very difficult for Iraq to meet its 18 reform goals in the next 45 days.
Crocker downplays benchmarks
In his Senate testimony, 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. He 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.