White House report notes Iraq progress

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- A new White House report yesterday found "satisfactory" progress on nine of 18 benchmark measures in Iraq, an assessment that drew renewed attacks from Democratic critics of President Bush's policy.

Despite their call for a different course in Iraq, however, Democrats have not agreed on an alternative that would bring troops home faster than Bush has ordered.

The latest White House evaluation gave passing grades to the Iraqis for integrating members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the government and moving toward semi-autonomous regions and other areas. But it contained a more sober accounting of the situation in Iraq than Bush gave Thursday night. In a primetime televised speech, the president said that the troop surge he implemented this year was showing results and that some of the extra military personnel could begin coming home.

The written findings warned against "placing too much strain" on Iraqi security forces and said that "major economic turnaround remains unlikely" until the security picture improves. Required by Congress, the White House report is the latest in a series of evaluations that show many remaining challenges in Iraq, such as failure to enact an oil revenue distribution law or to reduce corruption and sectarian violence.

Democrats in Congress say those assessments show that the U.S. is falling short in its efforts to quell sectarian violence in Iraq, but they have not developed an effective strategy of their own. Unless Democrats in Congress can persuade more Republicans to join them, they lack the votes to force Bush to adopt a different policy.

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said Democrats have softened a proposal to narrow the mission of U.S. troops - by dropping a requirement to begin troop withdrawals in 120 days and changing it, instead, to a "goal" - in hopes of attracting more Republican support.

If Democrats can get enough Republican votes to win Senate approval, it would be "a powerful signal" to the public that "we get it" and are "beginning to move in a direction that's much more in accord with their views," Reed said.

Different strategies

Some Washington veterans are offering other ideas.

Leon E. Panetta, a member of the Iraq Study Group and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, suggested in an interview that Democrats need to enlist the support of a respected Republican, such as Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, to draft a bipartisan measure, as part of the military spending process, rejecting an open-ended commitment in Iraq, even though U.S. troops would probably need to stay in the region for years.

"There are some areas of common consensus," Panetta said. "Nobody wants an Iraq that is going to implode; everyone says they don't want an open-ended commitment; nobody supports a precipitous withdrawal."

More likely, though, is that Democrats and Republicans will be unable to agree on an alternate strategy of any kind, resulting in a stay-the-course situation that Bush wants.

Democrats are under increasing pressure from their party's liberal wing to block further spending for the war until Bush agrees to change his policy. Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, in a campaign commercial Thursday night on MSNBC, accused Congress of lacking "the courage" to bring the troops home and said lawmakers "must" use their power to end the war.

But none of the measures under serious consideration by Democratic leaders would go that far.

Gates vs. Webb

Nonetheless, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates was sharply critical yesterday of some of the ideas for troop withdrawal circulating on Capitol Hill, saying they could "further stress the force and reduce its combat effectiveness."

He singled out for criticism a proposal by Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia to require longer periods at home between combat deployments. If that requirement became law, Gates told reporters at the Pentagon, he might have to extend the 15-month tours of units already deployed in Iraq. Some units might not be available, leaving gaps in U.S. combat capabilities.

"As well-intentioned as many of these proposals are,"' Gates said, "in reality they end up imposing some real hardships on our forces and potentially impacting combat effectiveness and risk."

Webb responded that he "expected that the administration would oppose this amendment" and that he had altered his proposal after speaking to Gates this week to allay some of the Defense secretary's concerns.

Separately, the administration tried to bolster its argument for maintaining a huge military presence in Iraq in an appearance by Vice President Dick Cheney before a friendly audience at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Michigan. Cheney said that the nation needed to stay on the offensive against terrorism, and that "there will be no running, or relenting, until the problem has been dealt with - decisively, systematically and permanently."

Cheney said Iraqis "have begun to see that America's commitment is real and it is lasting."

"They've begun to realize that the United States is a nation that follows through on a pledge, and the president of the United States is a man of his word," he said.

Bush repeated the message of his primetime address during a visit to the Marine Corps base at Quantico, Va.

He told the Marines that "now we've got security in the right direction, and we are bringing our troops home." Bush said members of Congress should "listen very carefully to what General [David] Petraeus and Ambassador [Ryan] Crocker reported" in their Senate testimony this week.

House Democrats have planned no Iraq votes for next week and are waiting to see how the issue plays out in the Senate.

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer said Democrats might use a coming series of spending bills and other measures to try to change the direction in Iraq.

"Clearly, we are frustrated by the fact that no matter what we pass ... it's subject to being vetoed by the president. And he's made that clear, his inclination to do that," the Southern Maryland Democrat said.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County said Democrats would keep looking for GOP converts to the antiwar cause. "There are a lot of Republicans who say one thing back home in their districts and vote another way in Congress," said Van Hollen said. "We're trying to close that gap."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com matthew.brown@baltsun.com

Sun reporter David Wood contributed to this article.

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