Commanders and U.S. envoy seek more time for Iraq

Posted in United States , Iraq | 20-Jul-07 | Author: Thom Shanker and David S. Clou

Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador to Baghdad, speaking by video link to lawmakers in Washington on Thursday.

WASHINGTON: The top commanders in Iraq and the American ambassador to Baghdad used video links with Washington on Thursday to appeal for more time, both to allow for success on the ground, and to more fully assess if the new strategy is making gains.

But their appeals, in a trio of video sessions to Capitol Hill and the Pentagon, were met with stern rebukes from lawmakers from both parties.

Senior Republicans and Democrats told the generals and the ambassador that time is running out, both for Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to reach accommodation with warring religious factions inside the country and for what remains of Congressional support for the heightened troop levels that President Bush ordered in January.

"There's got to be some real evidence that action's taking place there and everything you can do to convey to Mr. Maliki and his executive committee, to the other players in the region, that the American people's patience is running out," Senator George V. Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, said to the television image of Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.

The request for more time came a day after Senate Democrats halted debate on American strategy in Iraq after being thwarted yet again by Republicans who blocked a plan that would have imposed a timetable for an American withdrawal. The move is expected to defer any Congressional action until at least Sept. 15, when the American commander in Iraq, General David H. Petraeus, and Ambassador Crocker are due to submit a major progress report.

In their comments on Thursday, the American generals and Mr. Crocker seemed to caution that the report would be only a snapshot, much as they did in seeking to minimize the significance of an early, mixed progress report submitted last week. But senior lawmakers sought on Thursday to signal that they would regard September as a deadline for deciding the future of the American commitment to Iraq.

"We're not staying," added Senator Joseph R. Biden, the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. "You don't have much time."

At the Pentagon, Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the senior ground commander in Iraq, said that while he would be able to provide an assessment of the progress of the new military strategy in mid-September, it would take at least 45 days beyond that to know with more certainty whether the strategy was working.

"In order to do a good assessment I need at least until November," he said during a video briefing with Pentagon reporters.

General Odierno said there had been "significant success" in rooting out insurgents, both within Baghdad and in towns surrounding the capital. But in an implicit argument for more time, he said it would not be possible to know by September whether these were "just a blip."

Earlier in the day in a classified question-and-answer session with members of the House and Senate, who had come to the Pentagon, General Petraeus was

asked by one lawmaker what affect a troop drawdown would have. According to a senior Pentagon official, General Petraeus responded, that "it would clearly put more pressure on the Iraqis who are already under a lot of pressure."

Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, quizzed Ambassador Crocker about his role in any planning underway at the National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon for the revised strategy in Iraq once the troop increase has run its course.

The ambassador said his efforts were solely on implementing the current strategy. "I am not aware of these efforts and my whole focus is involved in the implementation of Plan A," Mr. Crocker said.

And the ambassador warned that any decrease of American forces in Iraq that was not based on improving conditions would invite increased terrorist violence and risk country-wide chaos.

"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," said Mr. Crocker, who has served twice previously in Iraq and is one of the State Department's experts on Middle Eastern affairs.

The unusual testimony by Mr. Crocker to the Foreign Relations Committee was shown on four, large flat-screen televisions pointed at the senators and the gallery. The session, however, was plagued by repeated technical difficulties that disrupted both the image and the sound.

"Baghdad, can you hear the U.S. Senate?" Mr. Biden said into his microphone at one point when the communications with Mr. Crocker went silent.

An activist for the Code Pink anti-war movement shouted from the gallery, "Senate, can you hear the American people?"