White House battles to keep Iraq strategy on track


Published: Sunday July 15, 2007

The White House Sunday rebuffed calls by two respected Republicans to refashion its unpopular Iraq strategy, but the drumbeat of demands for an early withdrawal of US troops grew louder.

In a blizzard of appearances on US networks' political talk shows, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the administration took the intervention of Senators John Warner and Richard Lugar seriously.

"But the time to begin that process is September. And the opening shot really ought to be to hear from the commanders on the ground who can make an assessment of where we are in our strategy," he said on ABC television.

President George W. Bush's administration is vying to hold off a Republican revolt on Iraq until after a make-or-break report in mid-September by General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq.

But party statesmen such as Warner signaled that their patience was wearing thin.

Asked if the current Iraq mission would pass if it were put up for a vote today, Warner, an armed services expert, told ABC: "I doubt very much that it would."

Warner and Lugar, one of the top Republican voices on foreign policy, Friday introduced a bid to force Bush to change course and curtail his "surge" of nearly 30,000 extra troops into Iraq.

They proposed that Congress should reauthorize a sharply narrowed US mission in Iraq, to pull troops out of the sectarian cross-fire and retool them to battle extremists, train Iraqi soldiers and secure Iraq's borders.

But Warner and Lugar refused to bow to Democratic legislator demands for an explicit timetable for withdrawal of US forces, after a week that saw anger rise over meager political progress by Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government.

On CNN, Hadley acknowledged that progress by the Maliki government had been slow and urged Iraq's parliament to call off a break that it plans to take during the broiling Baghdad heat of August.

But he added that for Bush, Maliki was emerging "as a leader who is talking increasingly not in sectarian terms, but an agenda for all of Iraq in which all Iraqis can participate."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said "we understand the frustration by the US public, by the US Congress about the lack of progress or the slowness of this progress."

But like Hadley, he pleaded for more time and said that "posing certain timelines I think, sometimes, it is not helpful."

Zebari also rowed back from Maliki's remark Saturday that Iraqi forces were ready to assume security duties "any time the international forces wish to withdraw" -- which Lugar called a "strange assertion" at odds with reality.

Maliki was commenting for the first time on a critical White House report last week that detailed scant progress by his government on pivotal security and political goals that could help Bush chart an end-game for his Iraq plan.

The report was a precursor to Petraeus's September evaluation. But for many Democrats in Congress, there is no use in waiting until then.

"It's not that there's military chaos. It's that the politicians in Iraq have refused to make the compromises which are essential if there's going to be an end of violence in Iraq," Democratic Senator Carl Levin told Fox News.

"That's the issue. There's been no progress in that area. That's why it makes no sense to wait till September," he said.

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, an outside shot in the 2008 race for the White House, said Bush's "only strategy here is to keep this from completely imploding and handing it off to the next president."

Absent decisive action by Congress, he said, "we're just going to watch a lot of Americans die unnecessarily."

With US fatalities in Iraq reaching at least 3,614, and tens of thousands of Iraqis dead, polls show the war is deeply unpopular with Americans, and many Republicans are nervous with the 2008 elections looming.

In the House of Representatives, Democrats have pushed through a bill requiring a troop withdrawal to start within 120 days and be complete by April 1 next year -- but only four Republicans voted with them.

In the Senate, Republicans frustrated Democrats by using arcane procedures to ensure war measures need a 60-vote super-majority in the 100-member chamber to pass.

But Lugar and Warner's plan, and defections of several senior Republicans in recent weeks, suggest that by September, Bush's room for maneuver will be limited as US fatalities and public discontent mount.