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Petraeus, Crocker try to buy time for US efforts in Iraq

Their mostly upbeat testimony probably gives Bush some political space, but the reports aren't likely to result in broad political consensus.

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But the Petraeus-Crocker reports, especially as they continue Tuesday and lead into an address to the nation by Bush later this week, could have an impact on public opinion, some experts believe.

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"Many in Congress have made up their minds and will hear what they want to hear. But I do think the Petraeus-Crocker testimony could have an impact on public opinion," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "That could be the biggest net effect – public opinion rather than congressional opinion."

Public opinion often lags behind trends taking place, Mr. Phillips says, emphasizing that the surge only reached full strength in June. "The changed situation on the ground will take time to percolate into public consciousness," he says. "But something like all the attention to this testimony will help move that along."

Cognizant of polls that for some time now have shown a majority of Americans favoring a timetable for withdrawal, Phillips says this week's testimony will "heighten understanding of the costs and risks involved with setting a timetable."

He cites two points that Petraeus made: that a hasty US withdrawal could lead to a sectarian bloodbath in Iraq, or to a resurgence of Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists in areas of the country they have abandoned. These are two scenarios that could force the United States to "go back in," Phillips says.

In his testimony, Crocker appeared to make the case that the surge strategy had pulled Iraq back from the precipice of collapse and full-blown civil war. He said Iraq in 2006 "came close to unraveling politically, economically, and in security terms." But 2007 "has brought improvement" that Crocker said was evident in political as well as in security terms. He also mentioned a list of economic gains.

Such a sanguine assessment surprised some observers, who thought the two officials might indicate a broader opening to change in US strategy as a way to win support among those opposed to the current course. The testimony "was really less mixed than I thought it would be," says White of the Middle East Institute. "In the face of that kind of thinking, it's hard to imagine where there's going to be any change."

White says he heard too little assessment of the risks that could lie ahead in some of the directions US policy has taken. Concerning the creation of armed units in Anbar Province to help fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, he says, "One of the problems is that these are people who will not work with this central government. So what are the implications for the national unity we say we want?"

During the opening of the day's testimony, the deep divisions in the US Congress on Iraq were on full display. The Democratic chairmen of the two committees focused on the failure of the Iraqi government to take advantage of the surge to move toward national reconciliation.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said US troops had paved the way for Iraq to make a political "touchdown," but he concluded, "The Iraqis haven't even picked up the ball."

Ranking Republican members focused on Iraq's place in the war on terror, as well as on what they called Democratic attacks on Petraeus's credibility and suggestions that his testimony was not independent from the White House.

Representative Skelton countered the Republican broadsides by saying Petraeus was "almost certainly the right man for the job in Iraq, but he's the right person three years too late and 250,00 troops short."

Yet by the end of the hearings Monday, Skelton said he was dissatisfied with the assessments offered by the representatives of US policy in Iraq, and "very disappointed" with the Iraqis' failure to "step up to the plate" – two conclusions that may color the ongoing Iraq policy review, even if they don't end up changing it.