WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration and U.S. military officials predicted yesterday that a key September report would show progress in Iraq but that it would be November before they could judge the success of the troop buildup.
The comments - coming a day after congressional Democrats failed to force a change in the U.S. war strategy - were a new indication that the White House planned to seek still more time for its troop buildup to stabilize the situation in Iraq.
Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, said by teleconference from Baghdad that the military would produce the report on time as required by Congress. But, he said, September would be too early to determine whether improvements would last and whether the buildup has worked.
"In order to do a good assessment, I need at least until November," Odierno said. "If I have 45 more days of looking at those trends, I'll be able to make a bit more accurate assessment - if it's something that we think is going to continue or ... just a blip."
The September report looms large because key Republicans, such as Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, have indicated that they would not aggressively challenge the current strategy until after the assessment. Forestalling the challenge for two more months would allow the Pentagon to continue using the extra 28,500 combat and support troops President Bush authorized.
Yesterday's message was met skeptically on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers questioning the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said the administration was "moving the goalposts" on progress in the war.
"We're in our fifth year [in Iraq] and ... I think we're going backward," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and war critic who is considering a White House bid.
Bush, during an appearance in Nashville, Tenn., defended his decision to initiate the troop buildup.
"I made the decision that it was in our interest, the nation's security interest, instead of stepping back from the capital, to actually send more troops into the capital to help this young democracy have time to grow," he said.
Although the Iraqi government has had little success in meeting 18 formal benchmarks designated by Congress, the administration said it believes U.S. military forces have improved the security of Iraqi citizens and additional progress will be evident by September.
The military moved yesterday to ensure that troop levels remain at the current roughly 158,000 through September by extending the tour of 2,200 Marines. The 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, based at Camp Pendleton, Calif., will add 30 days to its seven-month tour. Earlier this year, the Pentagon extended active-duty Army units by 90 days, making their tours 15 months long. Standard Marine tours are shorter.
Odierno, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said the troop buildup was working in Iraq. U.S. forces, he said, had weakened Sunni insurgents, pushed al-Qaida in Iraq "off plan" and secured a majority of Baghdad.
"My hope is that the policymakers and everyone else, the public, within the United States listen and hear what we're saying, because there is some progress being made," Odierno said.
Military officers worry that Congress could force an end to the current strategy just as it begins to pay dividends.
Underscoring his view that an extension is needed, Odierno described a conversation between Command Sgt. Major Neil Ciotola, his top enlisted adviser, and an unnamed Marine lance corporal in Ramadi.
"He looked at my sergeant major and asked, 'We're not going to be given enough time to finish this, are we?'" Odierno said. "I hope that that young Marine warrior is wrong."
Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, urged the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday not to place the most significance on the benchmarks.
"In many cases, these benchmarks do not serve as reliable measures of everything that is important," Crocker said, adding that there might be better ways to show progress on, for example, national reconciliation.
Crocker, a veteran diplomat who appeared via teleconference from Baghdad, faced challenges from members of the committee.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, reminded Crocker of his recent statement that "electricity is more important to the average Iraqi than all the 18 benchmarks rolled into one."
But she pointed out that electricity service in Baghdad is worse since the U.S. invasion, not better. Crocker acknowledged that Iraqis in Baghdad receive only one or two hours a day of electricity, far below prewar levels.
In one critical exchange, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, who is the committee's ranking Republican member, expressed concern that the administration was not preparing for what will happen when the troop buildup is over. Lugar asked whether Crocker was aware of any internal planning, or whether interagency planning had been halted on administration orders, as Lugar said he had been told.
Crocker said he was unaware of any planning between agencies.
Julian E. Barnes and Paul Richter write for the Los Angeles Times.