WASHINGTON -- With support for his Iraq policy eroding on multiple fronts, President Bush dug in his heels yesterday and urged Congress to give his troop increase more time to work. He said force levels in Iraq would be decided by military commanders, not Washington politicians.
Democrats were dismissive, calling Bush's comments a delaying tactic. The Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, said the troop escalation has been under way for six months and "is not working."
The war of words came as a new national poll showed opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq at an all-time high. A growing number of Republican officials have begun moving away from Bush over the war, and the Senate is again debating measures designed to force a drawdown of U.S. troops.
Bush, at a campaign-style stop in Ohio, said the escalation had "just started," since the last of 22,500 reinforcements he announced Jan. 10 arrived only weeks ago. He said Congress should give the commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, "a chance to fully implement his operations" and wait for his progress report in September.
The new troops "just showed up and they're now beginning operations in full, and in Washington you got people saying stop," said Bush, whose remarks about the war drew silence from an otherwise enthusiastic Cleveland audience.
Bolstering his plea for more time was a Gallup/USA Today poll released yesterday that indicated that most Americans want Congress to wait until September to develop a new Iraq policy. However, the poll found that respondents, by a margin of 71 percent to 26 percent, favor a pullout of nearly all U.S. troops by April.
Even some Republicans said Bush's plan in Iraq has run out of time. Several who broke with the president recently over the "surge" strategy said in television interviews yesterday that he should change course immediately.
"There's no reason to wait," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici. The New Mexico Republican, who spoke with Bush this week, said he was "trying to tell him that he must change his ways because there is nothing positive happening." Iraq's military is not "living up to their commitments, which means we're doing all the lifting, all the work."
In advance of an interim White House report on Iraq, to be released this week, Bush acknowledged that "the Iraqis have got to do more work." The report by Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker is expected to conclude that Iraq's government has failed to meet any of the benchmarks for progress that Bush demanded in January.
"The president needs a new strategy," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. "A strategy can't sustain itself unless it has more broad support in the country and in the Congress than his current strategy does."
Alexander is among the senators from both parties who are demanding that Bush adopt recommendations made last year by the Iraq Study Group, which urged more intensive diplomacy and a reduced U.S. combat mission.
Supporters of the administration's Iraq policy, led by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, echoed Bush's call for patience and warned that a "premature withdrawal" would lead to more chaos and death in the region.
McCain, whose presidential candidacy appears to be collapsing, in part because of his outspoken support for an unpopular war, said: "There is progress being made, [but] we're a long way from succeeding." He predicted that the report in September would be "mixed. Some success and some frustrations."
Graham, just back from a trip to Iraq with McCain, described the Baghdad government as dysfunctional, adding: "I am in many ways more depressed than I've ever been about political reconciliation in the short term."
But Graham said alternatives being pushed by Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, which call for a diminished U.S. combat role, amount to little more than a return to the Bush administration's old, failed strategy of basing American troops away from populated areas, which would allow al-Qaida to "emerge anew in Iraq."
In Ohio, Bush spoke in broad terms about a new strategy, saying he'd be "glad to discuss different options," based on what military commanders tell him. The White House and the Congress "can work together on a way forward" after Petraeus reports in September, he said.
The president warned of the threat posed by al-Qaida in Iraq, describing it repeatedly as part of the organization behind the Sept. 11 attacks, a linkage that anti-terrorism experts say is inaccurate and misleading.
"I believe we can be in a different position in a while, and that would be to have enough troops there to guard the territorial integrity of that country, enough troops there to make sure that al-Qaida doesn't gain safe haven from which to be able to launch further attacks against the United States," Bush said.
He blamed the bombing of the Samarra mosque in Iraq on "the same people that attacked us in America" on Sept. 11, 2001. No group has ever claimed responsibility for the February 2006, attack, which U.S. and Iraqi officials have repeatedly called the work of al-Qaida in Iraq.
"The same people that attacked us on Sept. 11 is the crowd that is now bombing people, killing innocent men, women and children" in Iraq, Bush said.
The terrorist group led by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in Iraq "are not the same," said Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism specialist, who called Bush's statement "inaccurate, if not misleading."
Today's al-Qaida in Iraq fighters "are patently not the same people who attacked us on 9/11," Hoffman wrote in an e-mail response. U.S. military authorities in Iraq believe al-Qaida in Iraq is made up of 90 percent Iraqis and 10 percent foreign fighters, he said.
Insurgents in Iraq and the al-Qaida cell responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks "are only in the very loosest sense part of the same organization," Hoffman said.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is a Sunni group organized by Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, who declared allegiance to al-Qaida in 2004. Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. airstrike in June 2006.
Other terrorism specialists dismissed any easy linkage between the Sept. 11 attacks and insurgents in Iraq.
Al-Qaida in Iraq "clearly is a branch operation, a franchise" of al-Qaida, said Gideon Rose of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former National Security Council staff member. "But to say they are the 'same ones' tries to link the war in Iraq to 9/11 in a way that's not justified. It implies this group has existed since 9/11, as if we are fighting people in Iraq who blew up the World Trade Center, which we are not."
Analysts acknowledged that al-Qaida and al-Qaida in Iraq have similar ideology and that both are made up of radical jihadists.
Maryland representatives joined other Democrats in criticizing Bush's remarks, which House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer called "nothing new."
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Bush was trying to divert attention from what he called the "lack of progress report" coming this week and was "trying to scare us into following him with blind faith."
Sun reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.