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US Ambassador to Iraq Faces Tough Questions in Congress


U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker Thursday offered a mixed picture of the political progress being made by Iraqi leaders in a briefing to U.S. lawmakers by video link from Baghdad. Lawmakers, in turn, expressed impatience that the Iraqi government has not done more and reiterated calls for a drawdown in the U.S. military presence in that country. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Ambassador Crocker told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Iraqi government has made some progress, but that much more needs to be done.

"I certainly will not try to present to you the Iraqi government as a model of smoothly functioning efficiency, because it is not," he said. "It faces considerable difficulties. The stresses, the strains, the tensions of society are reflected in the government, and if there is one word I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq on the street, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods, and at the national level, that word would be 'fear'".

In a report to Congress last week, the administration found that Iraq made progress on less than half of 18 political, economic and military benchmarks.

Lawmakers expressed their frustration with the Iraqi government over the pace of progress. Some of the most critical comments came from members of President Bush's Republican Party.

"How long is enough time? We are in our fifth year, and we still see no political reconciliation occurring. Actually, I think we are going 'backward.," said Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from Nebraska.

Hagel is one of a growing number of Republicans who have called for a new U.S. strategy toward Iraq, one that reduces the U.S. military presence in that country and emphasizes diplomatic efforts.

The top Republican on the committee, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, has proposed legislation calling on President Bush to develop contingency plans for Iraq, including a drawdown in U.S. combat forces.

"We must now prepare for what comes next," he said.

Lugar asked Crocker if the U.S. government is developing any such contingency plans. The ambassador responded that he was not aware of such planning, and said he was focusing on implementing President Bush's troop surge strategy.

Lugar cited media reports which he said suggested that inter-agency planning for a potentially difficult redeployment from Iraq had been halted by what he called "high-level political pressures" in Washington.

Crocker's testimony comes a day after Senate Republicans blocked a Democratic-sponsored proposal for a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of next April.

Traveling in Tennessee, President Bush - in an apparent reference to the congressional debate over the troop pullout - said current U.S. strategy is on the right track.

"We will succeed unless we lose our nerve," he said. "We will succeed. Liberty has the capacity to conquer tyranny every time."

Lawmakers are expected to return to the Iraq debate in September, when Ambassador Crocker and the top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, brief Congress about the success of the surge strategy.

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