For months September has been cast as a pivotal time for determining the course of the war in Iraq, yet a top general now says a solid judgment on the U.S. troop buildup there may not come until November.
"In order to do a good assessment I need at least until November," said Odierno, a deputy to Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander in Iraq.
Odierno briefed Pentagon reporters by video link from Baghdad. Also on Wednesday, Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the top U.S. diplomat in Iraq, participated in a classified question-and-answer session with lawmakers, also via satellite. Crocker later testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Throughout the sessions, the officials warned that making strides toward security and political goals could take more time than first thought.
"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."
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.
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"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.
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.
Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press.