Friday, August 18, 2006

White House sees "huge challenges" in Iraq

White House sees "huge challenges" in Iraq
By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amid a largely bleak picture in Iraq, President Bush received an update on the security situation from top commanders on Thursday and the White House said "huge challenges" remain.

Bush held talks with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and senior advisers. Participating by video link were top generals George Casey and John Abizaid.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said he suspected there could be some discussion about U.S. troop levels in Iraq but he had no details.

"When you're getting a comprehensive review, one of the questions that's going to come up is, what do we need? The president has always said that that's the first question he asks his commanders, and I suspect that it will arise today," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Bush is under election-year pressure to start bringing some troops home this year, but a spasm of violence in Baghdad has forced commanders to move some American forces from other parts of Iraq into the capital.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that the number of daily strikes against American and Iraqi security forces has doubled since January.

But Bush says he will not be governed by public-opinion polls or political considerations in making decisions about Iraq, which he calls a central front in the war on terrorism.

The Times quoted an unnamed military affairs expert who briefed at the White House last month as saying senior administration officials "have acknowledged to me that they are considering alternatives other than democracy" in Iraq.


Snow opened his daily briefing by saying, "It's just not true."

The Bush administration is insisting that Iraq is not sliding into a civil war despite weeks of sectarian violence that have killed hundreds of Iraqis.

"The administration continues, though, to take a very close and candid look at what's going on. The security situation in some places is uneven. And it's clear that there are huge challenges that await us," Snow said.

A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found Americans significantly more pessimistic about the situation in Iraq now than they were two months ago.

In June, after the killing of Iraq's al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, 53 percent of Americans thought the situation was going well in Iraq, while only 41 percent believe so now after weeks of sectarian violence, the poll said.

The survey also said that 52 percent of Americans believe there should be a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, while 41 percent believe there should not be.

Bush's overall job approval rating was at 37 percent, which is in the danger zone for a president whose party is seeking to retain control of the U.S. Congress in the November election.

Democrats accuse Bush of staying the course with a failed policy in Iraq and say the Iraq war is draining resources from fighting the greater threat to U.S. security, al Qaeda.

"We need a new direction. We need to refocus our attention on destroying the enemy that attacked us five years ago, protecting America, and rebuilding our military," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada on Wednesday.