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Sens Set Expectations For Iraq Hearings

Seeking to frame the debate over the war in Iraq in advance of testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Capitol Hill tomorrow, senators from both parties offered their takes on what the men need to say to satisfy the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees. But, like previous testimony from the two top U.S. officials in Iraq, appeasing both sides will be a virtually impossible goal.

Democrats expecting testimony to include a run-down of goals met and progress achieved lashed out at a strategy they maintain is not working. "We are facing the fifth or sixth evolution of our, quote, strategy," Massachusetts Senator John Kerry told reporters on a conference call. Citing conflicts between Kurds and Arabs in the northern city of Kirkuk and recent unrest among Shiite militias in the southern city of Basra, Kerry said top intelligence officials agree on the war's ramifications. "They are saying that our presence in Iraq creates instability and is attracting jihadists."

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed said it is clear that increased numbers of U.S. troops have had no dramatic impact on any political progress. "The level of violence is more a function of political factors in Iraq than the number of troops we have on the ground," Reed said.

Republicans, on the other hand, implied they expected the hearings to become a political sideshow. In a rival conference call, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona told reporters he hopes members of the House and Senate use the testimony "to understand both the negative and positive results rather than use it as a political exercise to declare in advance a political point of view that isn't what General Petraeus and Amb. Crocker will be reporting on."

Democrats' arguments about Iraq will change, Kyl said. "I think what you might see is that they will use this report as well as the debate over the supplemental appropriation bill to fund the war as a means of making a different point," he asserted. "Not that there isn't success, but that the money could be spent back here at home."

Kyl said he suspects Democrats may include domestic spending add-ons to the supplemental war funding bill that is on the table, a move he characterized as "blackmail." He said Democrats would be "using our troops and their requirements as a hostage to Democrats' desire to spend more money on their favorite projects."

At least a few measures of success have been achieved, Kerry and Reed agreed, but they maintained too few goals had been reached. "There's been some progress, but the 'some' has to be italicized and very carefully defined," Kerry said. "It's not substantive in terms of what you really need to do to solve this."

Kyl said he expects "a mixed report," hinting on two occasions that the gradual drawdown of troops in Iraq that Petraeus previously called for will be "paused," though he called that idea his own speculation. Troop withdrawals, Kyl said, will likely continue by the end of the year, so that fewer troops will be in Iraq by the beginning of the next administration.

Democrats, whose views on Iraq are more positively reviewed with the electorate than their image handling the war on terrorism, sought to tie the two together. "This [war] is making us weaker and less effective on the real war on terror," Kerry said. Meanwhile, Reed asserted attention to another conflict is waning. "You have a serious challenge in Afghanistan," he said. "Progress there is slipping away."

Between Iraq and Afghanistan, both senators agreed, another country is on the rise. "Our presence in Iraq has essentially enhanced the power in the region and in Iraq of Iran," Reed said. Kerry added: "Everybody knows that Iran is taking advantage of our presence in Iraq, and we are playing into Iran's hand."

Responding to one reporter who pointed out that Democrats have repeatedly failed to force changes to the strategy in Iraq, Kerry said Iraq will be part of what this year's election will be about. "It is clear that we do not have the votes in the United States Congress at this time," Kerry said. "The American people are going to speak on this in November."

"I'm not even sure that the next election will necessarily result in that big of a change," Kyl said. "I think John McCain is going to win, and I think he has a pretty sensible policy toward maintaining the gains that we've made here and not blowing them off by early withdrawal.

"If he were not elected, the realities on the ground would make it very difficult for the political promises of the two Democratic candidates to be fulfilled," Kyl concluded.

-- Reid Wilson and Kyle Trygstad