WASHINGTON &

Returning from a weekend trip to Iraq, Oregon Sen. Gordon Smith said Tuesday he remains convinced that U.S. forces should not be policing that country's civil war.




Smith, a Republican, traveled to Iraq and Jordan over the weekend with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, before the men attended the World Economic Forum in Jordan. The visit came just a year after Smith and Hatch went to Iraq last year.




In the meantime, Smith has become one of the leading GOP critics of the war, declaring in December that the U.S. war effort was "absurd" and "may even be criminal." Smith's remarks earned him national and even international attention.




He said his latest trip did nothing to dissuade him of those views.




While U.S. troops are making heroic efforts in Iraq, he said Iraqi officials still are not leading &

four years after the removal of Saddam Hussein.




"They are in gridlock," Smith said in an interview. "They are focused more on revenge than on reconciliation."




Still, Smith said he is slightly more optimistic about U.S. chances than in recent months, especially given his confidence in Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq.




Smith, Hatch and other lawmakers met with Petraeus Friday night at a lengthy meeting with Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq.




"My first impression is what a tragedy it is that we weren't pursuing the current tactics four years ago of clear, hold and build," Smith said, referring to a Petraeus strategy to clear an area of insurgents and hold it militarily, rather than retreat to a U.S. safe zone.




Smith, who met with three Oregon soldiers during his two-day visit, said Iraq is in the midst of a civil war that has little to do with the original reason the United States went to war in 2003.




"It is a country of complex hatreds, and yet a country with a remarkable opportunity," Smith said. "I just hope they can find the leaders that can let them claim the better way."




Smith said he remains convinced there is no military solution in Iraq, and that the longterm hope for stability there is through the political process.




"As General Petraeus has made clear, and from what I have seen with my own eyes, what remains to be done in Iraq is political. That's how we come home," Smith said.




The Oregon soldiers he met with &

all of whom are on their second or third tours of duty in Iraq &

share that view, Smith said.




"Everyone of them agreed that the best way to get the Iraqis to stand up is for us to begin standing down," he said, reversing President Bush's oft-repeated statement that U.S. troops will stand down as Iraqi forces stand up.




Smith voted to authorize the war in 2002 and publicly supported Bush for the next four years, before breaking with the administration in December. Smith, who is up for re-election next year, was one of two Republican senators to vote for a nonbinding resolution opposing the president's troop increase earlier this year.




Still, he said the so-called surge that recently added thousands of extra troops has worked "to a point."




He cited a trip he and Hatch took by helicopter to the turbulent city of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. The city had been a center of the insurgency but no longer is under extremist control, Smith said &

a key result of the troop surge.




"What was once the worst part of Iraq is now one of the best," Smith said.




After his whirlwind trip to Iraq, Smith and Hatch went to Jordan for a meeting of the World Economic Forum before traveling to London for yet another meeting.




"And I made a 5 o'clock vote" Monday night on immigration, Smith boasted.