WASHINGTON -- The top US commander in the Middle East warned Congress yesterday against setting a timetable for withdrawing US troops from Iraq, rejecting the arguments of resurgent Democrats who are pressing President Bush to start pulling out.
General John Abizaid instead urged quick action to strengthen Iraq's government, predicting that the vicious sectarian violence in Baghdad would surge out of control within four to six months unless immediate steps are taken.
"Our troop posture needs to stay where it is," and the use of military adviser teams embedded with Iraqi army and police forces needs to be expanded, Abizaid told the Senate Armed Services Committee. It was the first hearing on Iraq policy since last week's elections gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress starting in January.
The voting last week has been widely interpreted as a public repudiation of Bush's policies on the war, which has left more than 2,850 US troops dead and more than 20,000 others wounded.
Democrats have coalesced around the idea of starting to remove American troops in the next few months, and increasing numbers of Republicans have been openly critical of the war. The day after the election, Bush expressed an openness to considering fresh ideas on Iraq and announced the departure of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
Even so, Abizaid said it was too soon to give up on the Iraqis or to announce a timetable for starting a US troop withdrawal.
"Hope is not a strategy," said Senator Hillary Clinton, Democrat of New York, a prospective 2008 presidential candidate. Citing the Bush administration's repeated claims of progress in Iraq, Clinton said she saw no evidence that the Iraqi government was ready to make hard decisions, including taking firm action to disarm or neutralize sectarian militias.
"The brutal fact is, it is not happening," she said.
Asked what the effect would be on sectarian violence if the United States began a troop withdrawal in four to six months, as proposed by some Democrats, Abizaid replied, "I believe it would increase." It also would undermine US efforts to increase Iraqis' confidence that their own government is capable of assuring their security, he suggested.
Pressed by Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, on how much time the US and Iraqi governments have to reduce the violence in Baghdad before it spirals beyond control, Abizaid said, "Four to six months."
The hearing put a spotlight on Democrats' view that the administration's Iraq policy is broken, but it produced no new proposals for fixing it.
In one of the more contentious exchanges, Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, also a possible presidential candidate in 2008, challenged Abizaid's analysis of the Iraqi situation and accused him of sticking to a failed course.
In response, Abizaid said he was not arguing for the status quo. He said the key change that is needed now is to place more US troops inside the Iraqi army and police units to train and advise them. Having visited Iraq as recently as this week, Abizaid said he remained optimistic that the Iraqis are capable of overcoming sharp internal differences and creating conditions for stability.
In a separate session on Capitol Hill, two of the government's top intelligence officials offered relatively grim assessments of Iraq.
"The perception of unchecked violence is creating an atmosphere of fear and hardening sectarianism which is empowering militias and vigilante groups, hastening middle-class exodus, and shaking confidence in government and security forces," Lieutenant General Michael Maples, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said in prepared testimony.
General Michael Hayden, director of the CIA, told a panel that some of the blame for Iraq's trouble lies with neighboring Iran.
"The Iranian hand is stoking violence and supporting even competing Shi'ite factions" in Iraq, Hayden said.
Asked about his testimony in August that Iraq could fall into civil war and that the sectarian violence was as bad as he had ever seen it, Abizaid said the situation has improved, though it is still troubling.
Alluding to Washington's partisan battles over Iraq, Abizaid said that when he visits the US capital he senses a "despair" that does not exist in Iraq when he visits with Iraqi officials or with American troops and their commanders.