Three prominent critics of the Bush administration's handling of the situation in Iraq have come back from a recent visit to the country with some unexpected views. VOA's Al Pessin examines what they're saying and what impact they might have on the debate over U.S. policy toward Iraq.

The Iraq debate by now has pretty predictable parameters.  Bush administration officials and senior U.S. military officers say progress is being made in Iraq, but not enough.  They say more time is needed to press for political progress and solidify improvements in security, and they warn a premature U.S. withdrawal would be disastrous.

Critics of the war, including Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress, say claims by the administration and military leaders have no credibility.  Some critics have declared the new policy a failure and are calling for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.

The two sides are entrenched, and that can make it difficult for someone who has criticized the handling of the war to say anything different.

"A War We Just Might Win?"

"I worry a little bit when I write this kind of an article about what little credibility I might have is so attacked because this issue is so politicized," says Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution, a Washington research organization.  O'Hanlon and his colleague Kenneth Pollack have been very critical of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war.  But after an eight-day visit last month, they wrote an analysis for The New York Times headlined:  ?A War We Just Might Win."

"It was only after going to Iraq and learning more and seeing more data, and also more on the battlefield, that I became a bit more optimistic.  The big question is to what extent can you transfer military momentum to the political sphere?  Frankly, I did not see grounds for optimism on that front in my trip," says O?Hanlon.

O'Hanlon and Pollack accuse Iraqi politicians on all sides of continuing to "dawdle and maneuver" rather than taking advantage of improved security to move toward reconciliation.  In a VOA interview, O'Hanlon said the overall situation in Iraq is still "a mess."  But he and his colleague surprised many in Washington when their recent article called on congress to support the U.S. political and military effort in Iraq at least "into 2008."

O'Hanlon and Pollack traveled in Iraq with an analyst from a rival think tank, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Cordesman, who has visited Iraq dozens of times during the last 35 years, has published a series of papers criticizing the U.S. military and aid efforts in Iraq, and accusing civilian officials and military officers of exaggerating successes and downplaying or ignoring problems.

After this trip, Cordesman is still very critical of the Bush administration, but he comes to a conclusion similar to O'Hanlon and Pollack's -- that there is, in the words of the title of a paper he published last week, a "Tenuous Case for Strategic Patience in Iraq."

"We're talking about a very complex situation,? says Cordesman. ?It's one where staying, maintaining a U.S. troop presence and a U.S. aid presence may help, but the main reason for doing that is if the U.S. leaves quickly or precipitously, its strategic posture in the region would be probably far worse, and the chances of near and mid-term stability in Iraq would be almost negligible."

Sustaining the Surge

Still, Cordesman, like the other analysts, says the burden now is on Iraqi politicians to move on key issues -- oil revenue sharing, regional autonomy and easing de-Baathification. 

Cordesman says progress by Iraqi politicians, and in the security forces, will do more to determine the future of Iraq than any U.S. policy. He is critical of anyone in the political debate who suggests that the right U.S. policy toward Iraq can be reduced to a slogan, whether that slogan is ?stay the course? or ?withdraw now."

"It is a matter of trying to time and shape a workable, sophisticated, complex plan, if that's possible," says Cordesman.  "And if it isn't, you are facing much worse alternatives."

Although he sees serious consequences from a U.S. withdrawal before Iraq is stabilized, Cordesman also says U.S. troops can not stay much longer if the Iraqis don't do their part.  "If you don't get political progress in the next few months, particularly with the central government reaching an accommodation with the Sunnis, I don't believe it's worth sticking it out," says Cordesman.

Cordesman gives the Iraqi politicians six months to address the key issues.  Otherwise, he says, the opportunity for compromise created by the recent rejection of extremism by many Sunni tribal sheikhs will be gone and, in his view, ?strategic patience? would become pointless.

Michael O'Hanlon says he and his colleague Kenneth Pollack came to a similar conclusion from their visit to Iraq. "What I'm suggesting is that I'm not confident that we can wait that far into 2008," he says.  "And that's sort of why we only advocate essentially another six months or so of the surge.  Implicitly, what we're saying is that there's enough good going on we'd like to see it go for a few more months.  But we're not necessarily more confident than that."

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has called for the development of a bi-partisan consensus on how to proceed in Iraq without either a disastrous withdrawal or an open-ended troop commitment.  He has been working to forge such a consensus among members of congress, but so far with little apparent success.

The top U.S. civilian and military officials in Iraq are due to issue their next progress report by September 15.  That highly anticipated report is not expected to sway deeply entrenched supporters and critics of the war policy.  But reports from independent analysts like O'Hanlon, Pollack and Cordesman might, at least a little.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.