Bush quiets GOP revolt over Iraq
Stemming a revolt among Senate Republicans, President Bush appeared Thursday to win two more months for his “surge” strategy in Iraq after arguing that U.S. forces had made some progress and needed time to make the country more secure.
Issuing a report to Congress on the war, Bush acknowledged that Iraqi leaders had made little headway in resolving the political conflicts that have paralyzed the government and fueled sectarian violence.
But he appealed to nervous Republicans to stand firm, arguing that lawmakers should not impose their judgments on the commander in chief.
“I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war. I think they ought to be funding the troops,” Bush said at a White House news conference.
Leading Republicans said they remained skeptical that the buildup of 30,000 troops would work, but they appeared to have accepted the president’s plea to wait until a more comprehensive Pentagon assessment is released Sept. 15 before trying to force any change in course.
“In deference to the president ... I think it’s important that we wait until all the facts are in in September,” said John W. Warner (R-Va.), former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. Warner is working on a proposal that would call on the president to make plans to remove U.S. troops from most combat operations.
Unless there are significant improvements in Iraq in the next two months, lawmakers say, the president will almost certainly face a mutiny within his party’s ranks.
Public support for the war has eroded to the point where more than two out of three Americans support a troop withdrawal over the next nine months. A sense of near-panic has set in among congressional Republicans, who lost their majority in Congress last year in large part because of opposition to the war. They fear further losses next year.
One House Republican who has not publicly expressed his reservations about the president’s policy said many of his colleagues were losing patience with Bush.
“It’s getting harder and harder to hold things together over here. There’s a lot of unrest,” said the lawmaker, who asked not to be identified in discussing discontent in his party. “People are saying, ‘What are we doing? Just sitting here, waiting?’ ”
Two and half weeks ago, the president faced a potential tide of defections among congressional Republicans when Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, one of the party’s most respected voices on foreign affairs, delivered an impassioned critique of the Bush’s policy and urged a change of course.
Other GOP lawmakers followed. Three now support a proposal to force a withdrawal. A fourth, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, backs a measure that would require the White House to immediately scale back the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
Collins said Thursday’s report reinforced her conviction that Congress must act to force change. “I just don’t see any grounds for believing the situation will be any different in September,” said Collins, who is up for reelection in 2008.
Even with his popularity sinking to record lows and his policy showing limited success, the president has rallied his party one more time.
Over the last week, the White House has mounted a full-scale campaign to keep GOP senators on board. Bush’s chief of staff, secretary of state and national security advisor telephoned into the night and spent hours at the Capitol and White House meeting with lawmakers one-on-one and in groups.
Publicly, Bush has displayed little doubt that his buildup will eventually succeed. “When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will be because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it’ll be good politics,” Bush said Thursday.
The president’s tenacity had an effect on Republican senators, Collins said. “It may have caused some members in my caucus to hold off until September, despite having deep reservations, because the president feels so strongly,” she said.
Though nearly a dozen GOP senators have called publicly for a new strategy; most have proposed only nonbinding legislation.
The vast majority of the caucus has vigorously opposed Democratic proposals to force the White House to change course. The most modest of those proposals -- a measure to mandate more rest time for troops between deployments -- drew seven Republican votes but still fell four votes shy of the 60-vote supermajority it required.
“I don’t think we’re at a tipping point yet,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who has expressed reservations about the current policy but is heeding the president’s call to wait.
In the House on Thursday, only four Republicans joined the latest Democratic move to pass a bill to end the more than 4-year-old conflict, just two more than supported a similar measure in the spring. The bill, which would require a withdrawal to start within 120 days of enactment and be completed by April 1, passed 223 to 201.
Most Republicans stuck with the White House, which promised a veto, arguing that a swift withdrawal would be disastrous for Iraq and jeopardize U.S. security.
“This bill is about beating up on the president and about scaring nervous members of Congress,” said Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.).
One reason Republicans continue to stand by the president may be that administration officials are suggesting the September report from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, will be a much fuller assessment and will include options for new strategies.
“He will make recommendations for ways ahead based on several potential courses of action,” said a senior military official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to discuss internal plans.
The Pentagon and Iraqi commanders believe that by September they will be able to show more progress, including bringing a larger swath of Baghdad under control and lowering the level of sectarian violence throughout the country.
Sen. Coleman said he was confident that the administration would adopt a new strategy after September. “We’re going to have a changed mission in Iraq,” he said. “And we’re going to have it by sometime next year. In fact, I anticipate that we are going to have significant troop withdrawals or drawdowns because we’re not going to be doing what we were doing before.”
Bush’s formal White House news conference was his first in nearly two months. It exposed him to aggressive questioning when support for his presidency has reached its lowest level -- 29%, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll released this week -- largely because of Iraq.
But taking the microphone in the White House briefing room also allowed Bush to present, at length, his thinking about the course of the war. The report, mandated by Congress when it appropriated money for the war this spring, found progress toward eight of 18 political and military benchmarks.
“Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks,” Bush said. “Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism.”
In his comments, Bush cited some of the more promising conclusions. He noted that Iraq had provided the three brigades it had promised for operations in and around Baghdad. But the report said Iraqi forces “had difficulty deploying” the units at sufficient strength and had to pull forces from other areas.
The president praised Iraq for spending nearly $7.3 billion “to train, equip and modernize its forces,” but acknowledged “the Iraqis have much more work to do,” including passing a law to equitably distribute oil revenue among Iraq’s regions.
In fact, the report went further, suggesting that Iraqi officials might fail to meet the benchmark: “It is too early to tell whether the government of Iraq will enact and implement legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to all Iraqis.”
Bush argued repeatedly that persistence is necessary in Iraq to prevent new Al Qaeda attacks in the United States. He did not distinguish between the threat posed by the network controlled by Osama bin Laden and that from an Iraq-based group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq.
For months, Bush administration officials have talked about Al Qaeda in Iraq as an increasing focus of military concern.
“While AQI may not account for most of the violence in Iraq, it is the organization responsible for the highest-profile attacks, which serve as a primary accelerant to the underlying sectarian conflict,” the progress report said.
Bush’s language in recent months has been less precise, and he has often appeared to suggest that Bin Laden’s group is conducting attacks in Iraq. In recent days, Bush has gone a step further, twice asserting that the groups are one and the same.
“The same folks that are bombing innocent people in Iraq were the ones who attacked us in America on September the 11th,” Bush said Thursday.
Asked by a reporter whether he had evidence the groups operated together, the president retreated somewhat.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden,” Bush said. “And we need to take Al Qaeda in Iraq seriously, just like we need to take Al Qaeda anywhere in the world seriously.”
Times staff writers Julian Barnes, James Gerstenzang and Richard Simon contributed to this report.