Top Senate Democrats have started to acknowledge progress in Iraq, with the chairman of the Armed Services Committee yesterday saying the U.S. troop surge is producing "measurable results."
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan highlighted improved security in Baghdad and al Qaeda losses in Anbar province as examples of success — a shift for Democrats who have mainly discounted or ignored advances on the battlefield for weeks.
"The military aspects of President Bush's new strategy in Iraq ... appear to have produced some credible and positive results," Mr. Levin said in a joint statement with Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, after a two-day visit last week to Iraq.
Mr. Levin joins a growing chorus of Democrats — including 2008 presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin of Illinois — who say the troop surge has produced benefits, but who also bemoan failures of the fledgling Iraqi government they have repeatedly criticized for taking an August vacation.
The Democrats' reframing of the war debate helps them avoid criticism for naysaying U.S. military achievements while still advocating a speedy pullout from what they say is a civil war the Iraqi government cannot quell.
"It's working," Mrs. Clinton said of the troop surge yesterday in a speech at the Veterans of Foreign Wars national convention in Kansas City, Mo., a group at odds with her votes for a pullout and against emergency troop funding.
But Mrs. Clinton told the roughly 5,000 veterans that the new strategy came "too late" in the four-year-old war and it is time to bring U.S. troops home.
"I do not think the Iraqis are ready to do what they have to do for themselves yet," she said. "I think it is unacceptable for our troops to be caught in the crossfire of a sectarian civil war while the Iraqi government is on vacation."
The Bush administration said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders are meeting — despite the parliament's recess — in pursuit of political accommodations acceptable to the Kurds, the ruling Shi'ites, the majority population and the Sunnis who were displaced from power in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
"We believe that Prime Minister Maliki and the Presidency Council will be able to get this important work done, work that is being done on the local level where we see bottom-up reconciliation taking hold," said National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe.
The White House since July has highlighted gains ahead of a Sept. 15 progress report to Congress from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq. In his weekly radio address Saturday, Mr. Bush predicted political progress at the local level in Iraq will help end the stalemate at the national level.
Democratic leaders, who have repeatedly failed to force the administration to accept a troop-withdrawal timetable, hope the report will convince Republicans to break with Mr. Bush.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada has said he will press for a pullout after Gen. Petraeus' report.
"After nearly five years, a half-trillion dollars and over 3,700 American lives, it is long past time for a change of direction in Iraq," Reid spokesman Jim Manley said. "That is what the American people and our troops expect. That is what we will seek in September, and hopefully enough Republicans will finally join with us to bring about the change in policy that is so desperately needed."
Earlier this month, Mr. Durbin also recognized military progress but cited the poor performance of Iraqi forces and the Iraqi government as reasons for U.S. troops to look for the exit.
"More American troops have brought more peace to more parts of Iraq. I think that's a fact," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch after meeting with Gen. Petraeus.
Mr. Levin said improved capabilities of Iraqi troops could make it easier for U.S. troops to leave, though Iraq remained mired in violence because Mr. al-Maliki's government is "too beholden to religious and sectarian leaders."
Mr. Levin said the troop surge succeeded in giving the Iraqi government "breathing room" to broker national reconciliation, including deals to disarm militias and adopt laws to share oil revenue among Iraqi sects.
"They're not using it," he said in a conference call with reporters. "And I don't think they're capable of using it under this leadership of Maliki. And so we have to figure out: Do we then urge them to make a change in their government or not?"
Mr. Levin said he continues to support his plan to start a troop pullout within four months with most of the forces out by spring, the same plan that died July 18 in the Senate when Democrats fell eight votes short of the 60 votes needed to end debate on the measure.
Meanwhile, U.S. military officials are narrowing the range of Iraq strategy options and appear to be focusing on reducing the U.S. combat role in 2008 while increasing training of Iraqi forces, a senior military official told the Associated Press yesterday on the condition of anonymity.
The military has not planned for a substantial withdrawal in 2008 but is preparing possible overtures to Turkey and Jordan to let the U.S. use their territory to move some troops and equipment out of Iraq, the official said. The main exit would remain Kuwait, but those options would be easier and more secure for forces leaving western and northern Iraq.
The official emphasized that internal deliberations are ongoing and that the discussions do not prejudge decisions Mr. Bush may make, including on whether or when to reduce U.S. troops or shift to a larger Iraqi combat role.
• Jon Ward contributed to this report.