By Jonathan Weisman and Anushka Asthana
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A01
Faced with almost daily reports of sectarian carnage in Iraq, congressional Republicans are shifting their message on the war from speaking optimistically of progress to acknowledging the difficulty of the mission and pointing up mistakes in planning and execution.
Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) is using his House Government Reform subcommittee on national security to vent criticism of the White House's war strategy and new estimates of the monetary cost of the war. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (Minn.), once a strong supporter of the war, returned from Iraq this week declaring that conditions in Baghdad were far worse "than we'd been led to believe" and urging that troop withdrawals begin immediately.
And freshman Sen. John Thune (S.D.) told reporters at the National Press Club that if he were running for reelection this year, "you obviously don't embrace the president and his agenda."
"The first thing I'd do is acknowledge that there have been mistakes made," Thune said.
Rank-and file Republicans who once adamantly backed the administration on the war are moving to a two-stage new message, according to some lawmakers. First, Republicans are making it clear to constituents they do not agree with every decision the president has made on Iraq. Then they boil the argument down to two choices: staying and fighting or conceding defeat to a vicious enemy.
The shift is subtle, but Republican lawmakers acknowledge that it is no longer tenable to say the news media are ignoring the good news in Iraq and painting an unfair picture of the war. In the first half of this year, 4,338 Iraqi civilians died violent deaths, according to a new report by the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq. Last month alone, 3,149 civilians were killed -- an average of more than 100 a day.
"It's like after Katrina, when the secretary of homeland security was saying all those people weren't really stranded when we were all watching it on TV," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.). "I still hear about that. We can't look like we won't face reality."
Said Gutknecht: "Essentially what the White House is saying is 'Stay the course, stay the course.' I don't think that course is politically sustainable."
Rep. Jim Gerlach (Pa.), who like Shays is a swing-district Republican facing a tough reelection race, has introduced legislation to create clear measurements of progress in Iraq, in such areas as government stability and territory under the control of Iraqi forces.
On Tuesday, Shays joined U.S. Comptroller General David M. Walker in criticizing unreliable cost estimates of a war that is nearly 3 1/2 years old. Shays said the Defense Department has not "had respectful [cost] accounts since the end of World War II," adding that he hopes the agency will withstand an audit in his lifetime.
Gerlach took a similar road.
"Congress needs to be more proactive and aggressive in evaluating what is the progress in Iraq," he said. "The Iraqi government shouldn't feel like it's got a blank check on American lives and American dollars."
Even Democrats say they see a change in tone on the other side of the aisle.
"I think there is a lot less arrogance about the war in Iraq than there once was -- and people are much more sober in their assessment," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.).
The evolving Republican message on the war contrasts with the strong rhetoric used by House and Senate Republicans recently in opposing a deadline for withdrawal from Iraq. During a debate last month, Gutknecht intoned, "Members, now is not the time to go wobbly." This week, he conceded "I guess I didn't understand the situation," saying that a partial troop withdrawal now would "send a clear message to the Iraqis that the next step is up to you."
"If we don't take the training wheels off, we will be in the same place in six months that we're in today," he said.
Republicans and some conservative Democrats who have backed the president's call to stay the course are finding it increasingly difficult to square their generally optimistic rhetoric with the grim situation on the ground in Baghdad and other cities.
"This escalating trend . . . represents the greatest danger to Iraq as it threatens to erode the government's authority," Ashraf Qazi, the U.N. envoy to Baghdad, said in a statement. "The emerging phenomenon of Iraqis killing Iraqis on a daily basis is nothing less than a catastrophe."
But it is the nature of the violence that may be forcing Republicans and some Democrats to temper their public assertions about the war -- even as they insist that the administration cannot pull out without precipitating an even worse situation. Masked attackers wielding heavy machine guns have killed Shiite mothers and children in a market and hauled Sunnis off buses to be slaughtered in broad daylight. A suicide car bomber killed 53 Tuesday in Baghdad after he beckoned a crowd of day laborers to his explosives-laden minivan.
Last week, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) issued a statement hailing the turnover of Iraq's Muthanna province to Iraqi security forces under the headline "Progress in Iraq . . . Despite Doomsday Democrats."
On Tuesday, there was little talk of progress as he insisted that the rising sectarian violence was "nowhere close to civil war."
"Look, you have got one of two options," Boehner said. "We can pull out, walk away and watch everything that we've worked for and the Iraqis worked for fall apart and watch pure civil war break out, or we can stay the course. . . . As difficult as the problems are on the ground, it is either one of two options."
Republicans, especially those in swing districts, had no choice but to shift the emphasis of their war talk, lawmakers said. "The Iraq issue is the lens through which people are looking at the federal government," said Rep. Charles W. Dent (Pa.), another swing-district Republican. "That is the issue to most people. There's no question about that."
To pretend the war is resolving itself nicely is no longer an option, he said.