President Unbowed as Benchmarks Are Unmet

By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 13, 2007

President Bush, delivering a mixed report to Congress on political and military progress in Iraq, insisted yesterday he would not be rushed into an early withdrawal, even as lawmakers voted to begin pulling troops from Iraq in the coming months.

Just hours after the administration's much-awaited report reached Capitol Hill, the House responded by approving legislation requiring U.S. combat forces to start leaving Iraq within 120 days. The resolution passed on a largely party-line vote, with only four Republican defections -- a reflection of White House efforts to keep House Republicans from joining restive GOP senators in challenging the president.

With most Democrats solidly opposing Bush on Iraq, the White House yesterday appeared intent on easing Republicans' concerns over their politically costly support of the president. In both the report and a subsequent news conference, Bush made the case that progress is underway, albeit fitfully, and that Congress should wait until September before demanding any dramatic shifts in strategy.

The president cast his ultimate goal as identical to that of his critics. "We're working to defeat al-Qaeda and other extremists and aid the rise of an Iraqi government that can protect its people," Bush said at the beginning of his news conference. "By doing this, we'll create the conditions that would allow our troops to begin coming home while securing our long-term national interest in Iraq and in the region."

Answering questions for more than an hour, Bush acknowledged public anxiety over the conflict in Iraq but remained defiant about his prerogative to conduct the war as he sees fit. He said he might be willing to consider a new approach, but not until September, when Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker are scheduled to make a more comprehensive assessment of conditions in Iraq.

"There's war fatigue," Bush said. "It's affecting our psychology."

The president later lashed out at lawmakers for trying to end the war from Capitol Hill. "I'll listen to Congress," Bush said. "But the idea of telling our military how to conduct operations, for example, or how to deal with troop strength, I don't think it makes sense . . . nor do I think it's a good precedent for the future."

The White House report highlighted "encouraging signs" of progress and pointed down the road to a "more normalized and sustainable level of U.S. engagement in Iraq, with a decreasing number of U.S. combat forces." But it was also candid about some of the failures of the Iraq government in meeting a series of congressionally mandated benchmarks.

It was far from clear yesterday whether Bush's latest communications offensive had bought him much more time on Capitol Hill. Even key Republicans questioned the Iraqi government's ability to meet benchmarks on security and national reconciliation.

"I am disappointed that, after great sacrifice by U.S. and Iraqi troops since the announcement of the surge in January, the Iraqi government has not met critical political benchmarks in that period," said Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee and a bellwether of GOP opinion. "That government is simply not providing leadership worthy of the considerable sacrifice of our forces, and this has to change immediately."

Democrats were more scathing, accusing Bush of whitewashing the findings and failing to face reality. "The president stubbornly refuses to develop a redeployment plan or devise a redeployment schedule, preferring to hope, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary, that his failed policies will somehow make tomorrow better than today," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

A lengthy introduction to the administration's 25-page report described it as an interim "snapshot" of only limited use in judging the success of Bush's new strategy. Some of the benchmarks, it said, were useful in "giving some sense of future trends," while others were "lagging indicators" that could be assessed only after the strategy "is fully underway." It suggested that some other measures providing a more favorable picture -- a recent decrease in the number of suicide bombings and sectarian violence, and local cooperation with U.S. forces in Anbar province -- might serve as a better yardstick.

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