By Peter Baker and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 24, 2007
Sen. John W. Warner, one of the most influential Republican voices in Congress on national security, called on President Bush yesterday to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in time for Christmas as a new intelligence report concluded that political leaders in Baghdad are "unable to govern effectively."
Warner's declaration -- after the Virginia senator's recent four-day trip to the Middle East -- roiled the political environment ahead of a much-anticipated progress report to be delivered Sept. 11 by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. Although Warner had already broken with Bush's strategy, this was the first time he endorsed pulling troops out by a specific date.
Warner's comments followed the release of a new National Intelligence Estimate that provided a mixed assessment on Iraq seven months after Bush ordered more U.S. troops to the country. The report, produced by the CIA and 15 other intelligence agencies, determined that "there have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq's security." But it predicted that the Iraqi government "will become more precarious" in the next six to 12 months, with little hope of reaching accommodation among political factions.
The NIE seemed to support an emerging consensus among politicians in Washington that the troop buildup has made a difference in quelling violence in some pockets of Iraq but that the political reconciliation needed for long-term resolution appears broken. Advocates of withdrawal and supporters of the war alike quickly picked out parts of the report to bolster their arguments on future U.S. strategy in Iraq.
Democratic and Republican leadership aides said last night that Warner's new stance, coupled with the intelligence assessment, may have stalled any political momentum Bush seemed to have been building in recent days. Although Warner did not embrace more sweeping Democratic legislation on troop withdrawal, his call to start a pullout makes it easier for wavering Republicans to break with the president.
At his Capitol Hill news conference, Warner, a former Navy secretary and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, threw Bush's own words back at him by noting that the president has said the U.S. commitment in Iraq must not be "open-ended." Warner said it is time for the president to come up with an "orderly and carefully planned withdrawal," suggesting that Bush "send a sharp and clear message" to the Iraqis by announcing a pullout plan by Sept. 15 -- one that would involve at least a symbolic fraction of the 160,000 troops coming home by the holidays.
"I can think of no clearer form of that than if the president were to announce on the 15th that, in consultation with our senior military commanders, he's decided to initiate the first step in a withdrawal of armed forces," Warner said. "I say to the president respectfully, 'Pick whatever number you wish.' . . . Say, 5,000 could begin to redeploy and be home to their families and loved ones no later than Christmas of this year. That's the first step."
The White House politely rejected Warner's advice, saying any decisions would wait until after Petraeus's presentation next month. "I don't think that the president feels any differently about setting a specific timetable for withdrawal," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "I just think it's important that we wait right now to hear from the commanders on the ground about the way ahead."
Throughout the congressional fight over the war, Warner has proved to be a key figure, especially in brokering deals across the aisle and bringing along moderate Republicans. In 2005, he crafted a bipartisan proposal making 2006 a "year of significant transition" in Iraq. After opposing Bush's troop buildup this year, he wrote the measure that laid out 18 political and security benchmarks for the Iraqi government and U.S. military to meet and set mid-September for a progress report on those goals.
Over the summer, he proposed legislation with Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) calling on the president to develop a troop-redeployment plan by Oct. 16. But yesterday's withdrawal proposal puts him at the leading edge of a broader Republican revolt against the president's Iraq strategy.
Warner emphasized that he still does not want Congress to mandate timelines for withdrawal as some Democrats propose. Instead, he wants Bush to preempt such legislation. Warner suggested that after the first contingent is pulled out, the administration could assess the impact on the battlefield and on the Iraqi government's reconciliation efforts. Then the White House could decide the timing and size of the next withdrawal.
Although he traveled to Iraq with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) last week, Warner pointedly did not repeat Levin's call for the Iraqi parliament to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But he was unsparing in his criticism. "I really firmly believe the Iraqi government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Maliki, have let our troops down," he said.
The declassified key judgments of the NIE released yesterday echoed Warner's judgment on Maliki but warned of the consequences of pulling out troops in the short term. Although Iraqi security forces have "performed adequately," they have "not improved enough to conduct major operations" in multiple locations over time without U.S. help, the report said. Scaling back the U.S. mission to supporting Iraqi forces and hunting al-Qaeda in Iraq, as many Democrats and some Republicans have advocated, "would erode security gains achieved thus far," it added.
On the other hand, if U.S. forces continue their current strategy, the report predicted, security "will continue to improve modestly" over the next six to 12 months, though violence will remain high and political accord will remain elusive. The intelligence analysts were scathing in their judgment of Maliki's government, saying that political progress has "stalled" and that a leadership void has increased the prime minister's "vulnerability" to being toppled. Broad political compromise is "unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift" in Iraq.
Maliki's Shiite-led government has fractured through resignations and boycotts. He has proved unable or unwilling to institute measures demanded by Washington to govern distribution of oil proceeds, hold provincial elections and welcome lower-level members of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led Baath Party back into government. The main factor saving Maliki at this point, the NIE said, is the belief among fellow Shiite leaders that agreeing on a replacement "could paralyze the government," much as it did for the five months it took to choose him in the first place last year. That is a major reason Bush is standing behind Maliki for now, too, aides have said.
The NIE, released by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, is the first such assessment to focus on Iraq since January. It notes the new alliances between U.S. forces and Sunni Arab tribal leaders against al-Qaeda in Iraq, describing such "bottom-up" developments as "the best prospect for improved security." But it also says that such deals must translate into wider accommodation and "could pose risks to the Iraqi Government" by arming a sectarian minority.
Democrats said the intelligence assessment undergirds their desire to end U.S. involvement in the war and effectively demonstrates that Bush's strategy of boosting troop levels to create space for political agreement has failed.
"As today's NIE makes clear, a political solution is extremely unlikely in the near term," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "Further pursuit of the administration's flawed escalation strategy is not in our nation's best interests."
The White House said more time is needed. "It is frustrating, but it's not surprising that the political reconciliation is lagging behind the security improvements," Johndroe said. "I think that is the way the strategy was laid out."
The NIE is only one of several reports on Iraq in the weeks leading up to Petraeus's return. The Government Accountability Office late next week will deliver its assessment of the Iraqi government's performance on the 18 benchmarks for success. House leaders, in a conference call with much of the Democratic caucus yesterday, set hearings for Sept. 4 on the GAO's findings. Another report on the security situation in Iraq, overseen by former Marine commandant James L. Jones, should be delivered by the first week of September.