If the Iraqi government does not bring the religious violence in the country under control in the next six months, Iraq’s citizens will believe it’s powerless to govern, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.

The country has made great progress by forming a government that unites Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad testified. But he agreed with Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del, who said the country is caught between two parallel realities _ political cooperation at the top and regular murders and retaliation between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims in the streets.

The killings have only gotten worse since the government came into power, Biden noted. “Iraq, and the success of our mission there, remains a prisoner of the terrible and growing violence,” he said.

Still, Khalilzad said Americans should be optimistic about Iraq’s future, that the government there has a plan to curb the violence, including getting rid of policemen who are participating in the murders.

Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told Khalilzad that Americans are increasingly impatient with Iraq’s inability to slow the killings.

Khalilzad warned senators who want to pull out of Iraq over the next year _ including Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. _ that leaving too soon would make things worse.

“We have had a role in bringing about these circumstances in which the Iraqis find themselves,” Khalilzad said. “We can’t abandon them.”

Khalilzad told the panel that the mission in Iraq is part of a vision of helping to bring democracy and stability from western Africa to Pakistan. That will take decades, but won’t be done with large numbers of troops for all that time, he said.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he feels it was a mistake to invade, “and that the American people would not have signed up for the ambitious project that you’ve just outlined at this hearing.”

(E-mail leem(at)shns.com)