By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 7, 2007
President Bush said yesterday that there are "encouraging signs" that his new strategy in Iraq is working and bluntly challenged a divided Congress to provide funding for the war with no restrictions on commanders.
The president's appraisal, his first detailed assessment of the war since unveiling his new plan for Iraq on Jan. 10, was immediately attacked by congressional Democrats as a new attempt to raise false hopes about a deteriorating situation in Iraq. Advisers said Bush's comments were based on briefings from commanders on the ground and were designed to counter the argument from many Democrats on Capitol Hill that his Iraq strategy is destined to fail.
Bush said the Iraqi government has completed the deployment of three additional Iraqi army brigades to Baghdad and has lifted restrictions on U.S. forces going into certain neighborhoods in the capital. He said the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also started delivering on promises to meet political benchmarks, such as a new law to distribute oil revenues throughout the country.
"It is too early to judge the success of this operation. . . . This strategy is going to take time," Bush told hundreds of veterans gathered at the American Legion conference in Washington. "Yet even at this early hour, there are some encouraging signs."
Bush's comments seemed calculated to exploit divisions among Democrats who were swept into power by opposition to the war but have not agreed how to oppose it effectively. Congressional leaders are struggling to reconcile lawmakers who want to cut off funding and quickly end U.S. involvement in Iraq with others wary of interfering with the war.
Appearing before a friendly audience, the president said that some lawmakers think the mission in Iraq can succeed without the additional 21,500 troops he has ordered to the theater.
Other lawmakers, Bush added, "seem to believe that we can have it all: that we can fight al-Qaeda, pursue national reconciliation, initiate aggressive diplomacy and deter Iran's ambitions in Iraq -- all while withdrawing from Baghdad and reducing our troop levels. That sounds good in theory, but doing so at this moment would undermine everything our troops have worked for."
Congressional Democrats gave little credence to Bush's assessment of the situation in Iraq or of their legislative plans. Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), whose combat tour in Iraq propelled him into politics, was in Baghdad last week and said yesterday that he saw little change. Iraqis "are still sitting on the sidelines," he said, watching idly as their countrymen thwart progress toward reconciliation and tear down the electrical grid, while they wait for U.S. troops and money to intervene.
"At some point, you have raise the BS flag," the gruff former Army paratrooper said. "Every single Iraqi home has an AK-47 with 50 rounds of ammunition. It's the will of the people that's the problem."
Rep. Nancy Boyda (D-Kan.), who returned from Iraq Monday night, said U.S. commanders were cautiously optimistic as they described efforts to protect marketplaces and allow life in Baghdad to regain a semblance of normalcy. The Baghdad morgue's nightly body count had dropped to 10 from 100, but the officers, including Gen. David H. Petraeus, were not ready to draw conclusions, she said.
"They were really downplaying expectations" and for good reason, Boyda said. A recent bombing in a Baghdad book market filled the morgue again and set back the commanders' efforts to allow residents some measure of security.
The president had offered relatively little public assessment of the situation on the ground in Iraq since his Jan. 10 speech outlining a new strategy including the additional troops and a greater emphasis on Iraqi forces taking the lead in securing Baghdad. The White House has been clearly cognizant of the damage done to its credibility by its repeated promises of improvements being undone by rising sectarian violence in Iraq.
Indeed, the president's remarks came on a day when at least 118 Shiite pilgrims were killed in bombings and shootings across central Iraq -- attacks immediately claimed by Sunni insurgents.
White House aides have said that a full assessment of the new strategy will not be possible until summer. But in recent days, senior officials have sounded a more guardedly optimistic tone in private settings, and Bush went public with it yesterday -- though some in his own party cringed at even the modest horn-tooting. "We don't have the credibility to make that observation," said prominent GOP lobbyist Ed Rogers. "For the president to make that observation instantly makes people want to challenge that and wave the bloody shirt."
Some experts who follow Iraq closely said some of Bush's statements will surely be challenged. For example, Bush said it is a positive sign that the Iraqi government recently budgeted $10 billion for economic reconstruction and capital investment. But budgeting that money has not been the problem -- it has been the ability of the Iraqi government to spend it, according to many experts.
"I am really cautious on this," said one senior U.S. official involved with Iraq policy, referring to signs of improved governance by the Maliki government. "This is something to keep an eye on as an emerging trend -- I don't think its more than that."
Retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who has traveled frequently to Iraq, said he was encouraged by the presence of the new U.S. commander, Petraeus, and new ambassador, Ryan Crocker. "My head tells me we are in a very dangerous situation -- and in a general sense it is moving in the wrong direction," he said. "My heart tells me that Petraeus and Crocker may be able to talk 100 key Shia and Sunni leaders into moving back from the precipice."
While Bush spoke yesterday, House Democrats closed in on an agreement over supplemental war-funding legislation that they hope would force the president to live up to his promises and begin bringing troops home next year. The compromise would restrict the deployment of troops to only those deemed properly rested, trained and equipped. However, the president could waive those restrictions, provided he offers a justification for why they cannot be met.
The centerpiece of the compromise is implementation of the same benchmarks that Bush laid out in January to measure the Iraqi government's progress on stabilizing the country. If Maliki cannot meet those benchmarks, Bush would have to submit a plan to Congress next year to start withdrawing troops from combat areas, beginning in mid-2008 and concluding no later than Dec. 31 of that year.
But Democratic divisions remain stark, especially among the most liberal members of the Out of Iraq Caucus. The group's co-chairman, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), said a deadline of Dec. 31, 2008, is unacceptably distant and promised that "a very respectable group of members" would not vote to fund the war unless Democratic leaders take a more aggressive stand to bring troops home much sooner.