WASHINGTON — The U.S. ambassador to Iraq appeared via videoconference before skeptical senators Thursday to answer their impatient questions, including this one from Sen. Richard Lugar, the leading Republican expert on foreign affairs:
Are you planning for an eventual change of mission or redeployment of American forces in Iraq?
The Indiana senator, who's called for planning ahead for a withdrawal so that it won't be done poorly, said there'd been reports that the Bush administration had pressed officials to abandon any such planning.
Crocker said he knew of no efforts to create a Plan B.
"I'm fully engaged, as is General (David) Petraeus, in trying to implement the president's strategy that he announced in January," he said, referring to an increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops, mainly to try to quell sectarian fighting in Baghdad. "The whole focus is implementation of Plan A."
Other members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed Crocker for evidence that "Plan A" is working, when there's no visible progress toward a political solution to end the violence. Some said he should warn Iraqi leaders that Americans would withdraw someday and Iraqis should take advantage now of the "breathing space" to settle their differences.
"Mr. Ambassador, you're in a tough spot," warned Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., the panel's chairman. Later, he emphasized why: "I believe there is no possibility we will have 160,000 troops in Iraq a year from now. It's just not going to be the case. So time is running out, in a big way."
Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, was more emphatic: "It's inevitable that the U.S. is going to disengage and that our commitment is not open-ended. . . . Is there a sense of urgency? What are you doing to let them know that time is running out?"
Crocker testified that sectarian violence in Baghdad was down "to a notable degree," but conceded that bombings continue to kill many people. He warned that withdrawing prematurely would lead to more violence, a better environment for the group al Qaida in Iraq and more room for Iran to operate through proxies.
Asked for examples of progress, he said that Iraq's Shiite Muslim prime minister, Kurdish president and two vice presidents — one a Shiite and one a Sunni Muslim Arab — now met every Sunday morning. "I'm encouraged they can at least come together and thrash out their differences face to face," Crocker said.
He also pointed to the decision by Sunni tribal chiefs in Anbar province to fight against al Qaida in Iraq. Bush regularly emphasizes the Anbar turnaround, and did so Thursday in a speech at Nashville, Tenn.
Even so, Crocker concluded: "I'm not going to gild any lilies here" or oversimplify Baghdad's complex political problems. "But there are opportunities in that complexity."
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He acknowledged that American officials and Iraqis alike are frustrated by the lack of progress. Senators left no doubt that they are, too.
"We have put our troops in a situation where they are woefully overmatched . . . overburdening them with an almost impossible task," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "We hear an awful lot about — and you have said it — we have to buy time. We buy time for what? For a political reconciliation process that is not occurring, that is not working."
In response, Crocker said he'd visited Baghdad neighborhoods and spoken to residents who told him they wanted American forces to stay because they were providing security. He said he hoped that the troops could stay until there were enough reliable and trained Iraqi forces to take over.
Earlier, Crocker and Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, talked via videophone to about 100 members of Congress in a classified briefing hosted by the Pentagon. Petraeus said he was planning for an eventual withdrawal, a troop drawdown and the readjustments it would require, a Defense Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the session was closed to the news media.
Later, in an interview with National Public Radio, Petraeus said he agreed with Colin Powell's recent observation that it would be nearly impossible to maintain the troop buildup by the middle of next year because of the strain on the military.
Petraeus also said "we see no extension beyond 15 months for any of the forces on the ground.
"We're keenly aware of the strain that has been placed on the services, and it is one of many operational considerations that will eventually guide recommendations that I make through the chain of command to the president."
Some senators and experts predict that at least a partial American withdrawal is likely by next spring because of the war's heavy strain on the U.S. military and the growing frustration of the American people. Military experts say Bush would have to make some unpopular choices — such as extending tours of duty in Iraq beyond 15 months or calling up more National Guard units — to sustain a force of 160,000 past next spring.
(Nancy A. Youssef contributed to this article.)