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US Senators and Generals in Rare Disagreement on Iraq Strategy

The debate over Iraq policy in the U.S. Congress is increasingly revealing a split between some senior senators and generals to whom the senators usually defer on military matters. VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon the split shows the depth of feeling on the Iraq issue, and also its politics.

The disconnect between Capitol Hill and Baghdad has been growing for months.

"Baghdad, can you hear the U.S. Senate?," said Senator Joe Biden during a technical glitch in long-distance testimony by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. As soon as he said it, the senator realized his comment had broader meaning, and many in the room laughed.

Sometimes on a daily basis in recent weeks, members of Congress have called for a withdrawal from Iraq starting almost immediately, while U.S. generals in Iraq have called for more time to implement the strategy President Bush announced in January.

When the technical connection with Baghdad was restored, Senator Biden, a Democrat and presidential candidate, left Ambassador Ryan Crocker with these words.

"I promise you old buddy, forget what Joe Biden says, listen to the Republicans, we ain't staying, we're not staying, we're not staying," he said.

Many senators from President Bush's own Republican party are calling the new strategy a failure and calling for a change of course and a drawdown of U.S. troops. Those senators are not waiting for the Iraq progress report due from the generals and the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad in September. Among them is the senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar.

"In my judgment, the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved," said Lugar. "The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timetable in this country for military operations in Iraq. Some will argue that political timelines should always be subordinated to military necessity. But that is unrealistic in a democracy."

The members of Congress are focused largely on U.S. military deaths in Iraq, which have been running at about 100 per month during the current offensive, and total more than 3,600. American generals lament the casualties, but the congressional criticism has not changed their view that the new security plan is working.

They say they need more time to finish the job and provide the opportunity for the Iraqi government to pursue national reconciliation. A 'campaign plan' published this week predicts it could take two years to establish full security in Iraq, and the generals say they will need at least until late this year to determine whether their effort is really taking hold.

Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, the number two U.S. commander in Iraq, is among those calling for more time, and at a recent news conference he expressed some frustration that the message is not having much of an impact in the Congress.

"All I can do is tell you what I think is going on. I can not make anybody listen," he said.

Analyst Brian Darling of the conservative Heritage Foundation thinks he knows why many members of Congress are not listening to the generals.

"I think many of these politicians looked at the last election, and the pundits have attributed Republican losses in the last election to the dissatisfaction of the American public [in] proving progress in the Iraq war," said Darling.

Darling says members of congress should leave security policy-making to the generals and their commander in chief, President Bush.

"We do have members of congress that are ignoring what the generals are saying," he said. "Congress is stepping into the role of the commander in chief by tinkering with the president's strategy. It's difficult for members of congress to make these kinds of calls on the war."

Retired U.S. Army reserve colonel Laird Anderson, who is also journalism professor emeritus at American University, agrees with much of the congressional criticism. But he says the generals are in a better position than he is, or than members of congress are, to judge the situation in Iraq.

"I don't think that we can go on the assumption that the surge is failing," he said. "I think it is. I don't think that we're going to come out of this thing looking any better than we entered. But we haven't heard from the generals yet. And until we hear from them, then, I think we'll just have to wait."

But some members of congress and outside analysts question whether the generals, even with all their experience and knowledge, and the best of intentions, can truly be dispassionate in analyzing their own work in Iraq.

Among those experts is Jessica Tuchman Matthews, who was a senior foreign policy and security official in two Democratic Party administrations, and is now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"It's not dishonest, but it's a combination of being 'can-do,' which is the core of their training, and supporting the civilian leadership, which is the other core of their training, that I'm not surprised that you're hearing, 'it's working,'" said Matthews.

And Matthews says members of Congress, particularly Republicans with a history of supporting the military, would not ignore the generals for solely political reasons.

"I think what you're hearing is the depth of their conviction that it's not working, that this is not a strategy that is going to ultimately lead to a more positive outcome," said Matthews.

Even though more and more Republicans say they oppose the president's Iraq strategy, they have so far not been willing to vote with the Democrats to demand a withdrawal. And few members of congress are willing to take the only really binding action they could take - the drastic step of voting to cut funding for the war while American troops are in harm's way.

General Odierno hopes that by the time the September report is issued, there will be enough progress to convince enough people to let the new strategy continue.

"I have a lot of confidence that people will listen to what we have to say and make their judgments accordingly," he said. "And the American people will influence their representatives."

So far, there is little evidence of that in public opinion polls or congressional statements.

Reaction to September's report will provide the next indication of whether the connection between Baghdad and Washington has become any better.