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More time sought to assess surge

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Iraqi Shiites perform their evening prayers Thursday at a shrine in the holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.

Iraqi Shiites perform their evening prayers Thursday at a shrine in the holy city of Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.

Ghassan al-Yassiri, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The top commanders in Iraq and the American ambassador to Baghdad appealed for more time beyond their mid-September assessment to more fully judge if the new strategy is making gains.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters that while he would provide the mid-September assessment of the new military strategy that Congress has required, it would take "at least until November" to judge with confidence whether the strategy was working.

But their appeals, in three videoconferences on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon, were met by stern rebukes from lawmakers of both parties.

The sessions appeared aimed in part at conveying that the administration was not planning a major strategy shift in September that would begin reducing the American troop presence, even if benchmarks set by Congress to measure Iraq's progress were not achieved.

Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker told lawmakers in a closed-door video session at the Pentagon that it was increasingly likely that Iraq's government would not achieve all of the political benchmarks by September, according to a senior Defense Department official.

But in the briefings that included lawmakers, senior Republicans and Democrats told the generals and the ambassador that time was running out, both for Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki to reach accommodation with warring religious factions inside the country and for what remains of congressional support for the heightened troop levels that President Bush ordered in January.

The jockeying came a day after Senate Democrats halted debate on American strategy in Iraq after being thwarted yet again by Republicans who blocked a plan to impose a timetable for an American withdrawal. The move is expected to defer any congressional action until at least Sept. 15, when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American officer in Iraq, and Crocker are due to submit a major progress report.

In their comments on Thursday, the American generals and Crocker seemed to portray the coming report as no more than a snapshot, much as they did in seeking to minimize the significance of an early, mixed progress report submitted last week. At the same time, however, senior lawmakers of both parties signaled that they regarded September as a hard deadline for deciding the future of the American commitment to Iraq.

"There's got to be some real evidence that action's taking place there and everything you can do to convey to al-Maliki and his executive committee, to the other players in the region, that the American people's patience is running out," Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, said to the video image of Crocker.

"We're not staying," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Delaware Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, during a Capitol Hill session with Crocker. "You don't have much time."

Odierno said there had been "significant success" in rooting out insurgents, both within Baghdad and in towns surrounding the capital. But in an implicit argument for more time, he said it would not be possible to know by September whether these were "just a blip."

Earlier in the day, his superior, Petraeus, appeared with Crocker by video hookup in a classified question-and-answer session with dozens of members of the House and Senate, who had come to the Pentagon.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, asked what fallout there would be in Iraq if he was ordered later this year to begin withdrawing one Army brigade a month, according to a Pentagon official. Petraeus responded that Iraqis would become more fearful about their future, politicians would be less likely to proceed with reconciliation, and sectarian violence would increase, the official said.

The video sessions appeared to be an attempt by the administration, at a critical juncture in the Iraq debate, to put forward generals and diplomats who are viewed by members of Congress as having greater credibility even than some White House officials.

Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, quizzed Crocker about the ambassador's role in any planning under way at the National Security Council, State Department or Pentagon for the revised strategy in Iraq once the troop increase had run its course.

The ambassador said his efforts were devoted solely to implementing the current strategy. "I am not aware of these efforts and my whole focus is involved in the implementation of Plan A," Crocker said.

And the ambassador warned that any decrease of American forces in Iraq not based on improved conditions would invite increased terrorist violence and risk countrywide chaos.

"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," said Crocker, who has served twice previously in Iraq and is one of the State Department's experts on Middle Eastern affairs.

The unusual testimony by Crocker to the Foreign Relations Committee was shown on four large flat-screen televisions pointed at Senators and the gallery. But the session was plagued by repeated technical difficulties that disrupted both the image and the sound.

"Baghdad, can you hear the U.S. Senate?" Biden said into his microphone at one point when the communications with Crocker went silent.

An activist for the Code Pink antiwar movement shouted from the gallery, "Senate, can you hear the American people?"

Crocker cautioned the lawmakers that the series of 18 benchmarks set by Congress to defining his assessment due Sept. 15 may not be the best measures of success in Iraq. And he strongly hinted that those specific goals may not be reached by the September deadline, anyway.

"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.

Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., said the series of briefings he received at the Pentagon and privately in his office on Thursday did little to alleviate his concerns about the progress being made by the Iraqi government.

"The facts are pretty much in the public domain," Warner said. "Our concerns are about their inability to come together and reconcile things."