U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad is warning against withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq before the country is stabilized. Ambassador Khalilzad, whom President Bush has chosen to be the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, made his comments at a Senate confirmation hearing Thursday, as senators debated on the Senate floor a resolution that sets a timetable for the pullout of troops from Iraq by March of next year. VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Ambassador Khalilzad says he has begun to detect a more positive attitude among Iraqis since a new Baghdad security plan went into effect, supported by thousands of additional U.S. troops.

"They want to see changes on the ground," said Zalmay Khalilzad. "I do not think one can say there is a groundswell of optimism that has happened, but compared to two or three months ago, there is greater optimism on the streets and parts of Baghdad than there was earlier."

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ambassador Khalilzad said the United States needs to take what he called "a delicate balancing" approach to Iraq. On the one hand, he said, it is imperative for the United States to keep pressing, or "incentivizing," Iraqis to make the political compromises necessary to bring stability to the country. On other hand, he said, it is important for the United States not to do anything that would "unravel" the situation, like withdrawing U.S. troops before Iraqi forces are prepared to handle their own security.

He warned of dire consequences if the United States pulled its troops out of the country too soon:

"It would escalate the level of violence," he said. "As a personal observation, there is a risk of kinds of things happening that I do not know if we or others would be able to look the other way to let it happen, in terms of humanitarian crises and level of violence inflicted."

Ambassador Khalilzad attended an international conference in Baghdad last Sunday that focused on efforts to end sectarian violence.

He said he spoke for the first time to Syrian representatives, who expressed Damascus' interest in holding bilateral talks with the United States. The ambassador said he has yet to discuss Syria's interest with President Bush or Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in 2005.

If confirmed as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Ambassador Khalilzad said he would focus on efforts to stabilize Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and work to have Iran and North Korea achieve compliance with U.N. Security Council resolutions relating to their nuclear programs.

In addition, he vowed to increase efforts to end the humanitarian crisis in Sudan's Darfur region, strengthen the ability of the United Nations to undertake and manage peacekeeping operations effectively, and continue to press for reform at the world body.

Khalilzad, who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, is expected to be confirmed easily by the Senate.

Senator Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat and vocal critic of many Bush administration policies, praised Khalilzad's nomination:

"I am pleased that the administration has chosen such a talented a qualified candidate for this position," said Russ Feingold.

Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, also strongly endorsed Khalilzad's nomination:

"In recent years he has filled two of the most difficult diplomatic posts in our nation's history," said Senator Hagel. "As ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ambassador Khalilzad served under conditions that could easily overwhelm even the most gifted diplomat. Instead, he has earned a reputation as an agile and credible mediator in a region complicated by tribal, religious, and sectarian divisions."

If confirmed, Khalilzad would replace Ambassador John Bolton, whose recess appointment ended last year. Bolton was opposed by many Democrats because of his brusque style and allegations that he sought to shape intelligence to meet ideological ends.