By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 20, 2007
The No. 2 U.S. commander in Iraq said yesterday that he needs at least until November to accurately assess results of the current increase in troop strength and operations, even as senators from both parties warned U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker that time is running out.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno said he will participate in a much-anticipated report due to Congress in mid-September, but "to do a good assessment," he said, he would need 45 more days. Odierno cited "significant success" over the past four weeks in military operations against al-Qaeda in Iraq and in the training of Iraqi security forces, and said there has been movement toward political reconciliation.
Asked why support at home continues to wane, Odierno said: "All I can do is tell you what is going on. I cannot make anyone listen."
Odierno, Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, appeared in separate videoconferences yesterday to deliver identical messages on behalf of President Bush's strategy: Progress is being made in Iraq, but the strategy needs more time than Congress and the American public appear willing to give.
Crocker, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Iraqi political reconciliation "has a considerable ways to go." At this stage, he said, his focus is less on ensuring that the Iraqi government reaches the specific legislative and security benchmarks set by Congress, and more on developing a process for government factions to work together.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, along with Iraq's Kurdish president and the Sunni and Shiite vice presidents, now hold regular meetings "scheduled every Sunday morning" to deal with "crises of the moment, but we also hope over time to chart a way forward," Crocker said. He also referred to military and political progress in Anbar province and other areas where Sunni tribal leaders have volunteered forces to join the fight against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
"I will not present the Iraqi government as a model of smoothly functioning efficiency," Crocker said. "Because it's not. . . . The stresses and strains and tensions throughout society are reflected in the government." If he had to choose one word to sum up the atmosphere at every level in Iraq, he said, "that word would be 'fear.' " Replacing fear with "trust and confidence [is] what the process is all about."
Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) charged that the Bush administration is trying to divert attention from the lack of progress on the congressional benchmarks. After a mixed report last week, and in advance of the assessment that Bush, Petraeus and Crocker must deliver in September, "you're moving the goalposts," Kerry said.
Time was on everyone's mind. "We're buying time for a political reconciliation process that is not occurring," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the committee chairman, warned that "time's running out in a big way."
Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the ranking minority member, repeated concerns that he first expressed in a floor speech early this month, urging the administration to begin planning a redeployment of troops from Iraq before Congress and public opinion force it to do so. Crocker said he is aware of no administration preparation of a "Plan B," and he added that "my whole focus is involved with the implementation of Plan A" -- the strategy Bush announced in January.
Petraeus and Crocker appeared via video at the Pentagon earlier yesterday in White House-organized sessions for House and Senate members. About 100 House members from key committees and subcommittees were invited, congressional aides said, and about 50 attended. All 100 senators were invited to a separate session, which drew about 30.
Reaction to the briefing on all sides was an indication of increasing political tensions. The Senate Democratic leadership mocked the session as unhelpful and poorly organized. Majority Leader Harry M. Reid of Nevada called it a "supposed briefing" and noted that many Capitol Hill offices were unaware it was occurring. "Some offices still can't find" the invitations, said Reid, who did not attend.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said her staff found the invitation in a stack of faxes that came in over the public fax machine, which receives hundreds of messages a day. Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said he never received an invitation.
White House officials expressed irritation at what they described as petty congressional griping and pointed at the Pentagon, which they said had chosen to fax the invitations to lawmakers. The White House spent at least part of the day tracking down the faxes and confirming that they had been sent to those who complained and those who received the message but didn't show up.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) declined to discuss the specifics of the briefing but said of Bush's strategy, "I don't have any increasing confidence as a result of anything I've heard recently." Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a senior member of the committee, said that he had learned there is "some progress being made" but that stability on the ground in Iraq varies greatly by region.
Further strains emerged in an exchange of letters between Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y) and Eric S. Edelman, the undersecretary of defense for policy. Clinton wrote Edelman in May to ask whether contingency plans were being made for a phased withdrawal.
In a July 16 response released yesterday by Clinton's office, Edelman chastised Clinton's question. "Premature and public discussion" about withdrawal, he said, "reinforces enemy propaganda that the United States will abandon its allies in Iraq, much as we are perceived to have done in Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia." Such talk, he added, "understandably unnerves" U.S. allies in Iraq and "exacerbates sectarian trends."
Clinton spokesman Philippe Reines called Edelman's response "outrageous and dangerous" and said it exhibited "the same combination of arrogance and incompetence" in planning redeployment that the Pentagon had displayed going into Iraq.
Washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane and staff writer Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.