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GOP Skepticism On Iraq Growing

In seeking a reduction of U.S. forces into a support role in Iraq, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) said President Bush and his team
In seeking a reduction of U.S. forces into a support role in Iraq, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) said President Bush and his team "must come to grips" with reality. (By Lauren Victoria Burke -- Associated Press)

Republicans deflected Democratic demands for troop withdrawal timelines in last month's war funding bill. But Lugar and Warner were among many GOP lawmakers who supported the inclusion of political and military benchmarks and a Sept. 15 deadline for a progress report from the administration. The legislation also required studies aimed at providing Congress with independent views on the conditions in Iraq.

One provision, sponsored by Warner, created a commission of retired four-star officers and other military experts to independently assess whether Iraqi security forces are willing or able to end their own sectarian divisions and take a lead role in defending their country.

Warner said he knows that his push for the measure makes it appear that he does not trust Bush, Petraeus and Crocker to provide an honest report. "I accept that critique," he said in an interview. "But what are we to do? Be totally reliant on the executive branch for their analysis?"

The 14-member commission, headed by retired Gen. James L. Jones, a former Marine commandant and until his retirement last year the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, held its first meeting Friday. It plans several trips to Iraq, and its report to Congress will be timed to provide an alternative to what lawmakers will hear in September from Petraeus and Crocker.

Congress has also tasked the Government Accountability Office with assessing Iraqi progress toward political goals, including the revision of the Iraqi constitution and the passing of laws on the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth. And last week, the House voted to revive the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel Congress created last year to develop policy options.

Bush initially rejected most of the study group's recommendations, including the setting of performance benchmarks for the Iraqi government and the opening of regional talks with Iran and Syria. If its co-chairmen, former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), agree to reconstitute the group, it would provide new recommendations timed to coincide with the administration's September report.

Although the recent war funding legislation calls for a cutoff in funds if the benchmarks are not met, Democrats note that the measure gives Bush the authority to waive that provision if he provides a "detailed justification" in writing. "Is there anybody here, based on the statements the president has made for the last five years, who doesn't know exactly what the president is going to say with respect to progress?" Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) asked during a floor debate.

It was Petraeus who first set September as the time when he would be able to judge the success of Bush's new strategy. More than 155,000 U.S. troops are engaged in the stepped-up effort to stem sectarian and insurgent violence in Baghdad and the areas surrounding the capital. The administration has predicted that the anticipated calm will enable Maliki's Shiite-dominated government to implement key political reforms.

Petraeus has been a popular figure on Capitol Hill, with his words given more weight than those from the White House. "Why don't you wait and see what he says?" Bush said last month as Congress debated the funding bill. "General Petraeus picked this date; he believes that there will be enough progress one way or the other to be able to report to the American people, to give an objective assessment."

The White House is hoping that Iraqi negotiators will, at least, have an agreed-upon package of new drafts of oil legislation by mid-July, when Bush owes Congress an interim report.

Maliki's office announced last Wednesday that it had granted the government committee that is writing the constitutional revisions a third extension in its deadline, until late July. Negotiations on a new de-Baathification law are reportedly moribund.

The government, after expressions of outrage from the U.S. Congress, has indicated that the parliament is prepared to cancel a scheduled two-month summer recess due to begin next month. But none of the benchmark legislation is ready for its consideration.

Democrats have indicated that nothing they hear in September is likely to convince them that Bush's Iraq strategy is succeeding. They plan to offer several Iraq amendments to a Defense Department authorization bill scheduled for debate after the July 4 recess, including a March 31, 2008, funding cutoff. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Democrats will push "very, very hard" for the measure.

Reid yesterday hailed Lugar's speech as a "potential turning point" in the debate, adding that he looks forward to Lugar putting "his words into action by delivering the responsible end to the war that the American people demand."

Lugar made clear in his speech that he will oppose efforts to tie Bush's hands in the upcoming legislation. Instead, he called on the White House to take the lead in changing strategy before the polarized Washington debate "increases the risk that our involvement in Iraq will end in a poorly planned withdrawal that undercuts our vital interests in the Middle East."

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