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Party tries to outflank general’s Iraq report

Times Staff Writer

Launching a new assault on the president’s war strategy, congressional Democrats have begun to dismiss the Bush administration claims of military progress as unreliable spin ahead of Monday’s testimony from the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

In a shift from recent comments that the military buildup appeared to be making some gains, Democrats are now questioning the statistics being used to back up the reports of progress.

They are also increasingly casting Army Gen. David H. Petraeus’ upcoming report as a product of the White House rather than an independent analysis by a top military commander.

“By carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing and thus the surge is working,” said Illinois Sen. Richard J. Durbin, his chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, in a speech Friday in Washington. “Even if the figures were right, the conclusion is wrong.”

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The attacks are not without political risk for Democrats, who are sensitive to accusations of not supporting the troops and who have sought to avoid criticizing the military as they have declared the Iraq war a lost cause. Their new criticisms imply doubt about the credibility of a general who less than eight months ago won Senate confirmation as the top U.S. military commander in Iraq without a single dissenting vote.

Durbin said he did not want to question Petraeus’ integrity: “I respect him very much. And I believe he is an extremely competent military leader who has been given an almost impossible military assignment.”

The Democratic rhetoric in advance of Petraeus’ scheduled testimony Monday before two House committees underscores how polarized the war debate in Washington remains. It also highlights how deeply congressional Democrats distrust the Bush administration.

“I no longer can believe almost anything I am told,” said House Armed Services Committee member Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo), a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Tauscher, who discussed the war at a forum Friday, recently returned from Iraq, where, she said, the lack of security reinforced her unease about the picture of progress being advanced by the Bush administration.

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Military officers close to Petraeus say he hopes to stay out of the fray, presenting himself as an independent voice.

“He is not going in trying to convince anyone his way is the right way,” said an officer stationed in Baghdad. “What he wants people to see is that he is presenting a forthright assessment.”

Another officer who has worked with Petraeus said he believed the general would be careful: “I would expect he would have a lot of data to support any conclusions he puts forward. And, I think, where the picture is mixed, he will present the two sides of it and allow the politicians to come to their own conclusions.”

Both officers spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report had not been made public.

On Friday, Petraeus released a letter to military personnel in Iraq that highlighted the successes of the troop buildup but also acknowledged security improvements were “uneven.”

“We are, in short, a long way from the goal line, but we do have the ball and we are driving down the field,” he wrote.

Describing the situation as “exceedingly complex,” Petraeus said progress was more substantial than expected in Anbar province, but not as “dramatic” in parts of Baghdad.

He also acknowledged that hoped-for Iraqi political progress had not materialized. “All participants, Iraqi and coalition, are dissatisfied by the halting progress on major legislative initiatives,” he wrote.

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Petraeus, an authority on counterinsurgency tactics with a doctorate from Princeton University, has proved adroit at charming lawmakers from both major parties.

During his January confirmation hearings, even senators who strongly opposed Bush’s plan to boost troop levels to implement Petraeus’ strategy effusively praised the general’s qualifications. Petraeus was confirmed 81 to 0.

Over the summer, Petraeus shepherded dozens of lawmakers around Iraq on visits designed to showcase the military successes of the increase of 28,500 troops, which has been in full effect since June.

Those visits helped quiet, at least temporarily, anxiety in the GOP ranks over the Bush administration’s war strategy, and prompted a number of Democrats to praise the military’s progress.

In one widely noted instance, Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) conspicuously broke with his party and urged more time for the troop increase.

Democrats working to end the war have recently appeared to be on the defensive as Bush and his allies on Capitol Hill have accused them of refusing to recognize military gains in their determination to find evidence of failure.

After lawmakers returned this week to Washington from their summer break, Democratic leaders talked of compromising with Republicans to pass war- related legislation that would stop short of setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. In July, Democrats had seemed confident in their drive for a withdrawal and refused to compromise.

But two independent reports this week -- one from the Government Accountability Office and another from a panel of retired military officers -- renewed the focus on the shortcomings of the Iraqi government and armed forces.

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At the same time, questions emerged about the statistics cited by the U.S. military on violence in Iraq.

The military has said violence has dramatically decreased in recent months.

David M. Walker, the GAO’s comptroller general, pointed to substantial disagreements within the U.S. government about how sectarian violence was being calculated.

And a Washington Post report said the intelligence community had criticized the military’s assessments.

Bush gave Democrats an opening to question the Petraeus report when the president made a surprise visit to Iraq last weekend, said Paul Begala, who has advised Senate Democratic leaders.

He said Bush’s trip, intended to highlight military accomplishments in Anbar province, undermined the impression that Petraeus was an independent voice.

“The White House did something very strategically foolish,” Begala said. “He was their biggest asset.”

As the week drew to a close, Petraeus’ upcoming testimony had become the target of persistent attack as Democratic lawmakers branded it the “Bush report.”

“Instead of a new strategy for Iraq, the Bush administration is cherry-picking the data to support their political objectives and preparing a report that will offer another defense of the president’s strategy,” Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, the No. 3 Democrat in the House, said in a floor speech Friday.

“We don’t need a report that wins the Nobel Prize for creative statistics or the Pulitzer for fiction.”

noam.levey@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes contributed to this report.


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