The Bush administration and U.S. military officials predicted Thursday that a key September report would show progress in Iraq, but that it would be November before they could judge the success of the troop buildup.
The comments -- coming a day after congressional Democrats failed to force a change in the U.S. war strategy -- were a new indication that the White House planned to seek still more time for its troop “surge” to stabilize the situation in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said via teleconference from Baghdad that the military would produce the report on time as required by Congress. But, he said, September would be too early to determine whether security improvements would last and whether the buildup had worked.
“In order to do a good assessment, I need at least until November,” Odierno said. “If I have 45 more days of looking at those trends, I’ll be able to make a bit more accurate assessment -- if it’s something that we think is going to continue or something that was just a blip.”
The September report looms large because key Republicans, such as Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, have indicated they would not aggressively challenge the current strategy until after the administration delivers the assessment. Forestalling the challenge for another two months would allow the Pentagon to continue using the extra 28,500 combat and support troops President Bush authorized.
Thursday’s message was greeted skeptically on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers questioning the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said the administration was “moving the goalposts” on progress in the war effort.
“We’re in our fifth year [in Iraq] and ... I think we’re going backward,” said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), a war critic who is considering a White House bid.
Bush, during an appearance in Nashville, defended his decision to initiate the troop increase.
“I made the decision that it was in our interest, the nation’s security interest, instead of stepping back from the capital, to actually send more troops into the capital to help this young democracy have time to grow,” Bush said.
Although the Iraqi government has had little success in meeting 18 formal benchmarks designated by Congress, the Bush administration believes U.S. military forces have improved the security of Iraqi citizens and that additional progress will be evident by September.
The military moved Thursday to ensure troop levels remain at the current mark of about 158,000 through September by extending the tour of 2,200 Marines. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Pendleton, will add 30 days to its seven-month tour. Earlier this year, the Pentagon extended active-duty Army unit tours by 90 days, making them 15 months long. Standard Marine tours are shorter.
Odierno, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said the troop surge was working in Iraq. U.S. forces, he said, had weakened Sunni insurgents, pushed Al Qaeda in Iraq “off plan,” and secured a majority of Baghdad.
“My hope is that the policymakers and everyone else, the public, within the United States listen and hear what we’re saying, because there is some progress being made,” Odierno said.
Military officers worry that Congress could force an end to the current strategy just as it begins to pay dividends.
Underscoring his view that an extension of the surge is needed, Odierno described a conversation between Command Sgt. Major Neil Ciotola, his top enlisted advisor, and an unnamed Marine lance corporal in Ramadi.
“He looked at my sergeant major and asked, ‘We’re not going to be given enough time to finish this, are we?’ ” Odierno said. “I hope that that young Marine warrior is wrong.”
Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday not to place the most significance on the benchmarks.
“In many cases, these benchmarks do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important,” Crocker said, adding that there may be better ways to show progress on, for example, national reconciliation.
Crocker, a veteran diplomat who appeared via teleconference from Baghdad, faced challenges from members of the committee.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) reminded Crocker of his recent statement that “electricity is more important to the average Iraqi than all the 18 benchmarks rolled into one.”
But she pointed out that electricity service in Baghdad is worse since the U.S. invasion, not better. Crocker acknowledged that Iraqis in Baghdad receive only one or two hours a day of electricity, far below prewar levels.
In one critical exchange, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), the committee’s ranking minority member, expressed concern that the Bush administration was not preparing for what will happen when the troop surge is over. Lugar asked whether Crocker was aware of any internal planning, or whether interagency planning had been halted on administration orders, as Lugar said he had been told.
Crocker said he was not aware of any planning between agencies.
Lugar said after the hearing that the Bush team “has not been very prescient.”
“I have a fear that frequently in the Iraq war ... the planning has not been there,” he said.
Military and administration officials acknowledge privately that the troop increase will not continue indefinitely. Sometime next year, the Army will run low on forces, and there appears to be dwindling political will to continue with nearly 160,000.
In an indication of potential problems for the White House, a group of 70 mostly liberal members of the House said Thursday that they would not vote for any more funding for military operations in Iraq except to redeploy forces out of the country.
But it was unclear when the administration would propose reducing the size of the force -- or whether lawmakers opposed to the current military mission could force a change in strategy.
Military officials have signaled that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will use the September report to lay out his assessment of the potential effects of different strategy shifts.
But administration officials also could use that report to ask for another extension to the current strategy.
U.S. military leaders in the Pentagon and Baghdad have been discussing the complexities of shrinking the American force and have said any reduction should be slow and deliberate.
“If we have a change in strategy,” Odierno said, “I hope that we are given some time and can execute it in a very deliberate fashion -- which helps to protect not only our soldiers, but protect the Iraqis who have fought bravely.”
Times staff writers Doyle McManus, Peter Spiegel and Noam N. Levey in Washington and Tony Perry in San Diego contributed to this report.