For the fifth time in a year, the U.S. Senate this week debated cutting off funding for the Iraq war in 120 days.

"Keeping our troops in Iraq will not solve Iraq's problems, and it won't help us address the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda around the world," said the sponsor of the legislation, Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wis.).

Give Feingold points for consistency, but he also has been consistently wrong about what U.S. forces, under the right leadership and strategy, can accomplish in Iraq. Had his bill passed last year, al-Qaeda in Iraq would be doing victory laps.

The military won't solve all of Iraq's problems, but the gains in the last year are remarkable: reducing violence in the country dramatically; holding the towns and territory taken from insurgents and protecting the population; consistently beating al-Qaeda in Iraq and limiting its area of operations. And, at long last, improved security is leading to political gains.

Now, the question is:

If it's in the best interests of both countries for Iraq to be a stable, secure and democratic partner in the war on terror, how do you simultaneously nurture that nascent political and security progress, responsibly redeploy U.S. troops, nudge Iraqi security forces into the lead, and maintain the sense of security needed for continued political compromise?

Here's what you don't do: Threaten to bail out in 120 days. Why would Iraqis fight beside our troops or compromise with one another if it will be every man for himself in four months' time?

How about, instead of pretending that al-Qaeda is not in Iraq or wishing the war had never happened, facing up to the realities of Iraq today?

Ambassador Ryan Crocker made those realities plain in a recent conference call:

"Iraq is hard. Everything about it is hard. It takes time. It takes application. And progress can be achieved, but you've got to stay with it."

Debate in Washington is crucial, he says, but it does have consequences.

"There's a useful purpose in reminding Iraqis that there is a lot of impatience and unhappiness in the U.S. over the cost of our engagement in Iraq," he says.

"What you have to be careful of is not to create an impression . . . that we're done here, that we've just decided 'no more' and we don't care about outcomes, we don't care about conditions, we're going home. Because if that mind-set were to take hold, then the kinds of compromises we saw two days ago on legislation become almost impossible to get."

The legislation he refers to concerned de-Baathification, provincial powers and elections, and a new budget.

On providing amnesty, pensions and jobs for tens of thousands of former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party, Crocker cautions that "the proof is in the implementation." But, he adds: "The atmosphere out here now is just remarkably different than it was back when the early de-Baathification statutes went into effect. The whole motivating factor in this exercise was one of reconciliation, not retribution, and that's a complete reversal from 2003."

Provincial-powers and election laws are aimed at filling in the gaps left from previous elections, particularly in areas where Sunnis largely boycotted elections and thus lack representation.

If Iraqi factions can settle their differences on local elections, the potential is there for Sunnis to take the lead on provincial councils, which are gaining in power and importance with the help of revenue-sharing from Baghdad. The greater clout could offset dissatisfaction with a central government that is widely seen as corrupt and disinterested in providing services, and lead to change.

"The first time around everybody could run on promises," Crocker says. "Now those who have been in power are going to have to run on their records and their opponents, of course, will be running on the proposition that they can do a heck of a lot better."

Would voters again see huge sectarian slates of candidates or will there be some crossover? Crocker suggests a blurring of the lines is possible, if the compromises in parliament are any indication.

"On provincial powers, for example, the strongest differences were within the Shia coalition itself," he says. "You actually had some Sunni floating alliances in the parliament with one element of the Shia coalition against another. And that, in my view, is extremely healthy. As security conditions continue to improve and stabilize, I think you're going to see increasingly more of that."

There are, of course, no guarantees. As Crocker said, Iraq is hard. But this much is clear from the last year: The effective use of U.S. forces can help solve some of Iraq's problems. Defeating al-Qaeda there will help Iraq and address the terrorist threat worldwide.

But set a deadline for surrender and all bets are off.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or kf@phillynews.com.