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.
The report judged that progress was "satisfactory" in eight of 18 benchmarks, including a review of the Iraqi constitution; legislation to divide Iraq into semi-autonomous regions; the protection of minority rights; and government, military and civil support for the new strategy. But it noted mixed progress on new electoral laws, militia disarmament and the reduction in militia control of local areas.
Areas receiving unsatisfactory grades included reform of Iraq's de-Baathification laws; enactment of a new law governing oil revenue; the ability of Iraqi security forces to operate independently from U.S. forces; and a range of benchmarks measuring sectarian bias in the government.
Last night's House vote showed that Democratic leaders have solidified their party's unity, winning over conservative Democrats while pulling aboard a few straggling liberals who had sought an even firmer response. But Republicans by and large remained united behind Bush, a sign of the growing polarization in that chamber over the war.
Under the bill, which mirrors a bipartisan amendment now under debate in the Senate, combat troops would have to start coming home within 120 days of passage, with most of them out by April 1, 2008. An unstated number of troops -- perhaps tens of thousands, according to Senate GOP supporters -- would probably remain to combat terrorism, protect U.S. diplomatic facilities and train Iraqi security forces, although Bush would be required to justify their continued deployment.
The president has said he would veto such legislation, and there are no signs that Democrats could muster enough votes to override him.
The 223 to 201 House vote included four Republicans supporting the bill and 10 Democrats opposed. The four Republicans included two who have voted for withdrawal before -- Reps. Wayne T. Gilchrest (Md.) And Walter B. Jones (N.C.) -- and two who haven't -- Jo Ann Emerson (Mo.) and John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. (Tenn.).
In a statement, Emerson said she was seeking an alternative between unilateral withdrawal and remaining indefinitely. "The middle ground requires that we make plans now to redeploy our forces from Iraq in the visible future, not tomorrow, but eventually and in stages," she said.
Moderate Republicans -- who have been breaking against Bush in the Senate -- stuck with him in the House. Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a leading moderate, stressed that he would like to see the administration change course, but not the way Democrats are prescribing.
"I've never thought that setting an arbitrary deadline for complete withdrawal makes any sense," Castle said. "I just think that would leave the possibility of Iraq being in total disarray forever."
Meanwhile, in the Senate, Warner and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), unveiled an amendment yesterday to a defense policy bill, urging Bush to begin laying the groundwork for all conceivable outcomes that could emerge from the September report by Petraeus and Crocker.
The White House has been clearly working Republicans hard, anxious to maintain adequate support to sustain any Bush veto of Iraq legislation -- the key to his leverage on Capitol Hill. Bush yesterday described the Republicans who have voiced concern about his policies, including Lugar and Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), as "good, honorable people" who share his concern that "a precipitous withdrawal would embolden al-Qaeda."
Looking to shore up support with such lawmakers, Bush reiterated his interest in the Iraq Study Group recommendations, which appeal to the moderate GOP lawmakers. He also announced that he is dispatching Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to the Middle East in August -- answering lawmakers' desire for increased regional diplomacy. Rice will go to Israel and the Palestinian territories as part of a broader regional swing later this month before she joins Gates in early August to try to win greater support from Iraq's neighbors, U.S. officials said.
But Bush gave little indication that he is ready to jettison his basic approach to Iraq. "I know some in Washington would like us to start leaving Iraq now," he said. "To begin withdrawing before our commanders tell us we are ready would be dangerous for Iraq, for the region, and for the United States. It would mean surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaeda. It would mean that we'd be risking mass killings on a horrific scale."
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Robin Wright contributed to this report.