- The Washington Times - Friday, July 13, 2007

President Bush yesterday said that he realizes that the American people are suffering from “war fatigue” but that the U.S. military must stay in Iraq long enough to give fighting Iraqi factions a chance to reconcile politically, or Iraq will become a haven for terrorists and will destabilize the region.

“The best way to begin bringing them home is to make sure our new strategy succeeds,” said Mr. Bush, who released an interim report to Congress on progress by the Iraqi government and military in meeting key benchmarks.

Mr. Bush, speaking at a press conference to explain the report, tried to rebut criticisms that he is stubbornly resisting the wishes of most Americans to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. This conflict was reiterated yesterday in a House vote to order an American pullout, which passed but not by a sufficient margin to override a Bush veto.

“Sometimes the debate over Iraq is cast as a disagreement between those who want to keep our troops in Iraq and those who want to bring our troops home, and this is not the real debate,” Mr. Bush said. “The real debate … is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost and those who believe the fight can be won and that as difficult as the fight is, the cost of defeat would be far higher.

“I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must,” said Mr. Bush, who has sent 30,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq in the past six months.

Mr. Bush said that a “precipitous withdrawal” would allow al Qaeda in Iraq to launch operations from Iraq, while also plunging the country into sectarian killings “on a horrific scale” and allowing a hostile Iran to have greater influence in the region.

The president’s interim report said the Iraqis have made “satisfactory” progress on about half of 18 benchmarks, while making “unsatisfactory” progress on the other half. A lack of progress by Iraqi politicians in passing political reconciliation laws and in rooting out sectarian influence among the national police accounts for most of the missed benchmarks.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, has been unable to bring the dominant Shi’ite faction together with Sunni and Kurdish factions to pass key provisions and stop sectarian violence.

However, Mr. Bush said that it is “not surprising that political progress is lagging behind the security gains we are seeing.”

“Our strategy is built on the premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress,” Mr. Bush said.

Still, the Iraqi military is not making much progress toward becoming independent of U.S. forces, according to the White House report.

“There has been a slight reduction in units assessed as capable of independent operations since January 2007,” the report said.

Some Middle East scholars said the White House report was overly optimistic in its assessment of benchmarks reached.

“The Iraqi government has not really met the Bush administration’s benchmarks in any major area,” said Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In addition, a draft of the upcoming National Intelligence Estimate says al Qaeda is gaining increased capabilities to sneak operatives into the U.S. and is planning attacks from its base of operations on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, according to the Associated Press.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said the White House report “confirms what many had suspected — the war in Iraq is headed in a dangerous direction.”

“The Iraqi government has not met the key political benchmarks it has set for itself, and Iraqi security forces continue to lag well behind expectations. Our courageous troops continue to bear the burden for securing and rebuilding Iraq, while Iraq’s factions fight a deadly civil war,” Mr. Reid said.

Congressional Democratic leaders returned from a weeklong recess Monday and announced that they would renew efforts to pass legislation mandating a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the spring. Even though some Democrats have said that Republicans will not consider voting for a withdrawal until the fall, several prominent Republican senators have begun to break with the president over his Iraq policy.

The White House this week has waged a lobbying effort with key Republicans, asking them to wait until September — when Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is scheduled to give an update — before they judge the success of the surge.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said it is “wrong to keep pouring more and more lives into the endless black hole of a failed policy. It’s time to say ‘enough’ and bring our troops home.”

Mr. Bush, however, said that Congress should not be “running the war” and asked Congress “to give the general a chance to come back and to give us a full assessment of whether this is succeeding or not.”

“At that point in time, I will consult with members of Congress and make a decision about the way forward,” Mr. Bush said.

A bevy of Republican lawmakers spoke out in support of waiting for Gen. Petraeus’ September report.

“The Maliki government is not doing what they need to do. We have made mistakes, but the worst mistake … would be to change strategy at a time when it is beginning to show dividends,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

The president, speaking in the newly renovated press briefing room one day after it was reopened, closed with a personal admission.

“I guess I’m like any other, you know, political figure. Everybody wants to be loved. Just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don’t enable you to be loved,” Mr. Bush said. “And so when it’s all said and done … I will be able to I say I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics. And that’s important to me.”