WASHINGTON -- Even as the top U.S. officials in Iraq testified before a Senate committee Tuesday, Rep. Adam Smith was preparing his questions for Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
The two will testify Wednesday before the House Armed Service and Foreign Affairs committees. Smith is one of the few House members who serves on both panels.
The Washington Democrat said he doesn't expect to hear much new from Petraeus and Crocker. The congressman remains convinced there will be no major changes in U.S. policy in Iraq until a new president takes office, with President Bush running out the clock on his current policy and Democrats in Congress failing to muster enough votes to force a new approach.
"The president will get his way," Smith said in an interview. "But even if you don't have the votes, sometimes you have to force the debate. I don't believe it is a waste of time."
Smith said he met both Petraeus and Crocker while visiting Iraq and called them "talented and able people."
As for his questions, Smith said he would like to get some insight into how to solve the factional disputes in Iraq between Sunni, Shiite and Kurds. He also wants some idea of what Iraq needs to "look like" before the administration believes it can start withdrawing U.S. forces.
"We need some indication when it makes sense to start withdrawing troops," Smith said.
Smith said he was not convinced the buildup in U.S. forces over the past year had been a success, although Al-Qaida's influence has waned. But Smith said the political situation remains unstable, and the recent effort by the Iraqi government to rein in the Shiite militias has produced even more uncertainty.
"Recent developments put us in a dangerous situation of choosing sides in a civil war," Smith said. "Can our military presence move Iraq toward reconciliation and stability? I'm not convinced."
Smith said the United States needed to let Iraqi leaders know that U.S. forces will not be there forever and suggested a gradual withdrawal of U.S. troops over a year or two.
"Is it worth another 3,000 lives, 30,000 wounded and $700 billion to $800 billion in hopes it will increase stability in Iraq?" Smith asked. "There are no guarantees."