WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq said Thursday that Baghdad is making some political progress but faces considerable difficulty in the months to come to try to heal a nation long gripped by violence.
"If there is one word I would use to sum up the atmosphere in Iraq -- on the streets, in the countryside, in the neighborhoods and at the national level -- that word would be fear," Ryan Crocker told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"For Iraq to move forward at any level, that fear is going to have to be replaced with some level of trust, confidence and that is what the effort at the national level is about," he added, speaking by video link from Baghdad.
In the first hour of his testimony, Crocker said Bush's troop buildup in Iraq was just now hitting its stride and was showing some gains in tamping down sectarian violence in Baghdad. Crocker also warned against a withdrawal of U.S. troops, contending such a move could increase sectarian attacks and create a "comfortable operating environment" for al-Qaida, which continues to organize high-profile bombings.
He also warned lawmakers against relying heavily on a list of benchmarks to measure gains made in Iraq. Earlier this year, Congress asked the White House to report on progress made in 18 target areas for political, security and diplomatic reforms; last week, the administration reported mixed results.
"The longer I am here, the more I am persuaded that progress in Iraq cannot be analyzed solely in terms of these discreet, precisely defined benchmarks because, in many cases, these benchmarks do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important -- Iraqi attitudes toward each other and their willingness to work toward political reconciliation," Crocker said.
The ambassador's image was transmitted onto several large flat-panel screens, including one sitting on the witness table facing the senators.
He faced a tough crowd. A majority of the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee, including six of the 10 panel's Republicans, have expressed serious doubts about President Bush's decision to deploy additional troops.
"Mr. Ambassador, you're in a tough spot," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., committee chairman.
"Time is running out in a big way," he later added.
Another skeptic on the panel is Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the committee's top Republican. Lugar and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., have drafted legislation that would require Bush to deliver to Congress by mid-October a new military strategy to end major combat.
Lugar said he was concerned that the administration was not planning for an eventual drawdown of troops despite mounting pressure from American voters and politicians that the U.S. should leave Iraq.
"We need to lay the groundwork for alternatives so that when the president and Congress move to a new plan it can be implemented safely and rapidly," Lugar told Crocker.
Crocker said he was not engaged in any contingency planning and was focused solely on Bush's current Iraq strategy.
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., arguably the most vocal GOP critic of Bush's Iraq strategy, said he remained doubtful that a lengthy U.S. military campaign would produce the political settlement Iraq desperately needs.
"We buy time for what? A political reconciliation process that is not occurring," Hagel said.
"We're in our fifth year and see no political reconciliation occurring and I think we're going backwards," he later added.
Crocker said it was a good question but tough to answer because of the varying factors in the different neighborhoods and regions in Iraq.
"I certainly hope that we stay there long enough for Iraqi security forces to be available" to begin protecting neighborhoods, he later added.
The White House is pushing hard to buy time for its Iraq strategy, offering Congress unusual access to President Bush's top military and diplomatic advisers.
About 200 lawmakers were invited to the Pentagon for a classified question-and-answer session on Thursday with Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The two men briefed lawmakers via satellite from Baghdad.
Bush's new war adviser, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, also was to be in the room.
The briefings cap off a week of contentious Senate debate on the war and a public relations blitz by the administration to shore up GOP support. Republican support is crucial for Bush because of the narrow margins in the Senate and the minority party's ability to block any legislation with a filibuster.
So far, GOP lawmakers have been mostly united in rejecting Democratic demands to set a deadline for troop withdrawals. On Wednesday, they helped scuttle a bill by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., that would have ordered troops to start leaving this fall and end major combat by April 30.
The legislation was backed by a slim majority of senators in a 52-47 vote, but fell short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate and end a GOP-threatened filibuster.