Advisers tell Bush to stand pat on Iraq
By MATTHEW LEE and ANNE GEARAN, Associated Press Writers
President Bush's senior advisers on Iraq have recommended he stand by his current war strategy, and he is unlikely to order more than a symbolic cut in troops before the end of the year, administration officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
The recommendations from the military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker come despite independent government findings Tuesday that Baghdad has not met most of the political, military and economic markers set by Congress.
Bush appears set on maintaining the central elements of the policy he announced in January, one senior administration official said after discussions with participants in Bush's briefings during his surprise visit to an air base in Iraq on Monday.
Although the addition of 30,000 troops and the focus on increasing security in Baghdad would not be permanent, Bush is inclined to give it more time in hopes of extending military gains in Baghdad and the formerly restive Anbar province, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to describe decisions coming as part of the White House report on Iraq due to Congress next week.
The plan they described is fraught with political risk. While Republican leaders on Tuesday suggested the GOP may be willing to support keeping troops in the region through spring, it is unclear whether rank-and-file party members who face tough elections next year will be willing to follow their lead.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he would like to ensure a long-term U.S. presence in the Middle East to fight al-Qaida and deter aggression from Iran.
"And I hope that this reaction to Iraq and the highly politicized nature of dealing with Iraq this year doesn't end up in a situation where we just bring all the troops back home and thereby expose us, once again, to the kind of attacks we've had here in the homeland or on American facilities," said McConnell, R-Ky.
With Monday's back-to-back review sessions in Iraq, Bush has now heard from all the military chiefs, diplomats and other advisers he planned to consult before making a widely anticipated report to Congress by Sept. 15. Petraeus and Crocker are to testify before Congress on their recommendations next week.
The United States would be hard-pressed to maintain the current level of 160,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, but Bush is not expected to order more than a slight cut before the end of the year, officials said.
Bush himself suggested that modest troop cuts may be possible if military successes continue, but he gave no timeline or specific numbers. Options beyond a symbolic cut this year include cutting the tour of duty for troops in Iraq from 15 months back to the traditional 12 months, one official said. If adopted, that change would not come before the spring.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday during a trip to Australia, Bush restated his view that decisions about troop levels should be based on recommendations from military commanders and noted that Petraeus and Crocker would be delivering reports soon enough.
"Whether or not that's part of the policy I announce to the nation ... why don't we see what they say and then I'll let you know," Bush said.
Adm. William Fallon, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American forces in the Middle East and Central Asia, said Tuesday he saw signs of broad progress in Iraq.
"In the less than six months I've been in this job, I have seen a substantial change and it gives me some significant optimism that this place may just work out the way we had envisioned, or some had envisioned, when the tasks were undertaken," Fallon said in remarks to the Commonwealth Club of California, a public affairs forum.
A Pentagon official said Petraeus has not specifically recommended trimming tours by three months. Bush's troop increase will end by default in April or May, when one of the added brigades is slated to leave, unless Bush makes other changes to hold the number steady.
In an interview with ABC News, Petraeus suggested a drawdown next spring would be needed to avoid further strain on the military. Asked if March would be that time, he said, "Your calculations are about right."
Republican support could hinge on Petraeus' testimony next week. If he can convince lawmakers that the security gains won in recent months are substantial and point toward a bigger trend, GOP members might be more likely to hold out until next spring. They also might be more easily persuaded if Bush promises some small troop drawdowns by the end of the year, as was suggested to the White House by Sen. John Warner of Virginia, an influential Republican on security matters.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., returning from a weekend trip to Iraq, said Tuesday a small round of troop withdrawals might be the ticket to forcing political progress in Iraq. The position was a new one for the senator, who faces a tough election next year.
"I think the unmistakable message has to be sent to the Shiite leadership that there is no blank check for Iraq," Coleman told reporters on a conference call.
Also Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative and auditing arm, reported that Iraq has failed to meet 11 of its 18 political and security goals.
The study was slightly more upbeat than initially planned. After receiving substantial resistance from the White House, the GAO determined that four benchmarks — instead of two — had been partially met.
But the GAO stuck with its original contention that only three goals out of the 18 had been fully achieved. The goals met include establishing joint security stations in Baghdad, ensuring minority rights in the Iraqi legislature and creating support committees for the Baghdad security plan.
U.S. Comptroller David Walker said the GAO did not soften its report due to pressure from the administration and reached its conclusions on its own. Walker said Congress should ask itself what it wants to achieve in Iraq and can do so realistically.
"After we answer that, we can reassess what the appropriate goal is of U.S. forces," he said in an interview Tuesday.
Democrats said the GAO report showed that Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq was failing because Baghdad was not making the political progress needed to tamp down sectarian violence.
"No matter what spin we may hear in the coming days, this independent assessment is a failing grade for a policy that simply isn't working," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
The report does not make any substantial policy recommendations, but says future administration reports "would be more useful to the Congress" if they provided more detailed information.
Associated Press writers Anne Flaherty and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007