The two top US officials in Iraq – Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker – are on Capitol Hill this week to report on the Iraq war, but expectations are low that US policy will change much before the end of the year and the arrival of America's next president.
That's not just because General Petraeus has indicated he will recommend against a further drawdown of US forces beyond the level they are programmed to hit at midsummer. It is also the case because, despite security gains of the past year, Iraq is expected to remain in a fragile state for the rest of President Bush's term.
Several factors could contribute in coming months to unstable conditions on the ground:
•Sunni disappointment with the US and the Shiite-dominated government over the rate at which Sunnis are being integrated into the Iraqi Army or being provided with other jobs.
•Power struggles among Iraq's dominant Shiite groups and militias, particularly in the south. Recent fighting in Basra is a case in point.
•Evidence that Iraqi security forces are not ready to take over military operations from the US and coalition forces.
•Intensifying political jockeying in the run-up to provincial elections set for fall.
•Signs that Al Qaeda in Iraq and affiliated Islamic extremists are establishing a last-stand stronghold in the north – as well as expectations that Al Qaeda in Iraq, especially, will try to make violent statements that coincide with the US elections.
•Questions about how Iran will use its considerable influence in Iraq as both Iraq and the US traverse electoral periods.
"We're definitely going to hear a lot from [Petraeus and Mr. Crocker] about what our military strategy has accomplished and how there still needs to be more political progress," says Judith Yaphe, an Iraq specialist at The National Defense University here. "But there's a lot of risk and uncertainty – for the Iraqis, for our role in Iraq, for our elections, so I don't see it as a period when we're going to see much change in the way of strategy."
The status quo may not sit well with Congress, but the Democrats, especially, may not have any more ability than they did last fall, after the last Petraeus-Crocker hearings, to force changes. Some Democratic strategists say little is expected of this week's Iraq hearings, as the focus is on the next administration.
But even if the economy has supplanted Iraq as Americans' top concern, a holding pattern for the next 10 months is not acceptable for US interests, for Iraq, for the region, or for the troops, some lawmakers insist.
"What is the policy from here?" asks Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee that will hear from Petraeus and Crocker Tuesday. "Is [the Bush administration] intending to bind the next administration? ... I truly believe the president's plan is to muddle through and to hand it off to the next president," he adds. "I don't think they know what to do."
The year-old surge of some 35,000 US troops points the way to what the US should do in Iraq, some experts say – protect civilians even more and wean them from militias, for example. But even those who oppose a further troop reduction in the near term note that the political climate in the US doesn't bode well for long-term involvement.
Ken Pollack, a former National Security Council Persian Gulf expert who's now at the Brookings Institution, says the US, having stabilized the Sunni Anbar Province and the north, should turn its attention to the south where Iraq's dominant Shiite communities are in great flux.
"The surge has actually encouraged a fair percentage of the Shia population," he says. "Quietly, the Shia communities have begun to come over and are saying, 'We don't really like' " the various political-party-affiliated militias that have divided them. If the US doesn't seize this moment with the Shiite population, he adds, it risks being associated with the very same powerful militias it is trying to weaken.
Any push into Iraq's south would bring the US into closer confrontation with Iran, whose influence there has been growing. The US would do well, some analysts say, to address that issue in a larger regional context. "If you want peace in Iraq, if you want America to be able to have an exit strategy, the road goes through Tehran," says Ms. Yaphe, a former CIA Middle East analyst.
Still, say other analysts, the surge was intended to facilitate political reconciliation in Iraq, and it has not done that.
For example, some 90,000 Sunnis may now be armed to help fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq, but the Shiite-led government has not integrated most of them into the Iraqi security forces. That failure could turn around and bite both the Iraqis and the US, some experts say.
"If you are on the fence as a tribal sheikh ..., wondering if you want to join in on this movement, what the government has been doing in terms of who they are and aren't taking into the security personnel has not been encouraging," says Wayne White, a former Iraq expert with the State Department Policy Planning Staff, now with the Middle East Institute.
Some Iraq experts argue that political reconciliation is occurring, though more at the provincial than the national level and not according to US "benchmarks."
But others say the fine points of political reconciliation, whether it's happening and how fast, are increasingly beside the point in the US political context.
"The realistic timetable for [stabilizing Iraq] may be 10 years, but the political timetable is 10 months," says Ivo Daalder, a US foreign-policy specialist at the Brookings Institution. He doesn't expect to see a determined congressional effort this year to alter Iraq policy.
"The political debate will no longer be on the Hill," says Mr. Daalder, "but what you do in '09."