Bush Defends Iraq Strategy
President Bush on Tuesday defended his Iraq war strategy, saying again that he will wait for a Sept. 15 report from military commanders before considering a change.
"I believe that it's in this nation's interests to give the commander a chance to fully implement his operations, and I believe Congress ought to wait for Gen. (David) Petraeus to come back and give us assessment of the strategy that he's putting in place before they make any decisions," the president said in a speech to business leaders in Cleveland, Ohio.
Gen. David Petraeus is due to present a progress report to Congress on the effects of the recently completed troop build up in Iraq this fall. But Congressional leaders began debating the war strategy on Monday, as part of a defense spending bill. Democrats and some Repubicans want to set a time table for withdrawal now.
But President Bush said the troop buildup, which he announced in January, has only just been completed. He said it will take time to see the economic and political benefits.
Sen. John McCain, who just returned from Iraq, is defending President Bush's troop buildup against a new report that suggests the Baghdad government has failed to meet any of the major economic or political goals to foster stability.
McCain echoed the administration's line that reinforcements had only just recently been put in place and that more time was needed for the plan to work.
"I believe that our military in cooperation with our Iraqi security forces are making progress in a number of areas," he said, noting specifically a dramatic drop in attacks in Ramadi in the western Anbar province.
"Make no mistake. Violence in Baghdad remains at unacceptably high levels," McCain added. But the U.S. and Iraq seem to be "moving in the right direction," he said.
"The progress our military has made should encourage us," he said.
Debate over the next phase of the Iraq strategy was centering on a report showing that the Baghdad government has failed to meet any major economic or political targets for improving stability.
A draft version of the administration's progress report circulated among various government agencies in Washington on Monday as White House Press Secretary Tony Snow tried to lower expectations, saying that all of the additional troops had just gotten in place and it would be unrealistic to expect major progress by now.
"You are not going to expect all the benchmarks to be met at the beginning of something," Snow said. "I'm not sure everyone's going to get an `A' on the first report."
The document is to be delivered to Capitol Hill by the end of the week. The Senate, meanwhile, is expected to vote this week on a proposal by Sens. Jim Webb (D-VA) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) requiring that U.S. troops spend as much time at home as they do in combat. Another proposal, by Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI), would order troop withdrawals in 120 days.
One U.S. official said Monday the report will push the administration to consider its next move. Another senior official, however, said President Bush and his advisers already have decided no change in policy is justified yet because there was not enough evidence from Iraq.
The senior administration official said the report "will present a picture of satisfactory progress on some benchmarks and not on others."
Whether conditions merit a strategy shift, such as troop reductions or other scaling back of U.S. operations, will be decided after another status report on Iraq due Sept. 15, said the senior official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to talk more freely about internal deliberations.
The Sept. 15 report originally was proposed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and then enshrined into law by Congress.
In the Senate, several Republican-backed proposals are being drafted that would force a new course in Iraq, including one by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Ben Nelson (D-NE) that would require U.S. troops to abandon combat missions.
Collins and Nelson say their binding amendment would order the U.S. mission to focus on training the Iraqi security forces, targeting al-Qaida members and protecting Iraq's borders.
"My goal is to redefine the mission and set the stage for a significant but gradual drawdown of our troops next year," Collins said Monday.
GOP support for the war has eroded steadily since Bush's decision in January to send some 30,000 additional troops to Iraq. At the time, Bush said the Iraqis agreed to meet certain benchmarks, such as enacting a law to divide the nation's oil reserves.
This spring, Congress agreed to continue funding the war through September but demanded that Bush certify on July 15 and again on Sept. 15 that the Iraqis were living up to their political promises or forgo U.S. aid dollars.
The first U.S. administration official said it is highly unlikely that Bush will withhold or suspend aid to the Iraqis based on the July report.
From The Associated Press
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