- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2006

President Bush yesterday firmly supported setting “benchmarks” in Iraq to move toward stability and security in the war-torn country, and warned Iraqi leaders that the United States has “got patience, but not unlimited patience.”

Making frank admissions of overestimations, underperformance and flat-out errors, the president used a hastily called press conference to try to assuage angry voters, who by most election strategists’ accounts plan to vote Republicans out of control of Congress in just two weeks.

“We overestimated the capability of the civil service in Iraq to continue to provide essential services to the Iraqi people. We did not expect the Iraqi army, including the Republican Guard, to melt away in the way that it did in the face of advancing coalition forces,” Mr. Bush said.

Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Tuesday that Iraqi forces should be able to take control of security in 12 to 18 months with “some level” of U.S. support. Top U.S. military commanders laid out a series of “benchmarks” for the fledgling Iraqi government.

But Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took umbrage yesterday at the new talk of “benchmarks” for his government to reach.

“I affirm that this government represents the will of the people and no one has the right to impose a timetable on it,” Mr. al-Maliki said at a Baghdad press conference, where he dismissed U.S. talk of timelines as driven by the upcoming midterm elections.

“I am positive that this is not the official policy of the American government but rather a result of the ongoing election campaign. And that does not concern us much,” he said.

Asked yesterday for the first time since the “benchmarks” were laid out, the president — who has steadfastly opposed setting a “timetable” for the withdrawal of U.S. troops — endorsed the 12- to 18-month concept, with a few caveats such as objecting to a reporter’s question that used “benchmarks” and “timetable” interchangeably.

“There is a significant difference between benchmarks for a government to achieve and a timetable for withdrawal. … We’re working with the Iraqi government to have certain benchmarks to meet as a way to determine whether or not they’re making the hard decisions necessary to achieve peace. I believe that’s what you’re referring to. And we’re working with the Iraqi government to come up with benchmarks.”

But the president, who was combative and defensive at times in the hourlong press conference in the White House East Room, said “Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions.”

In supporting the idea of “benchmarks” for the new Iraqi government to reach as it takes over security operations, Mr. Bush warned Mr. al-Maliki that the United States must see action on a number of fronts.

“We’ll respect the fact that the Iraq government is sovereign, and they must respect the fact that we’ve got patience, but not unlimited patience,” he said.

Democrats on Capitol Hill immediately took aim at Mr. Bush. “President Bush’s Iraq policy has been a dismal failure. The president has abandoned his ‘stay the course’ slogan; it is long past time he abandon his ‘stay the course’ policy,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.

Added Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid: “The Bush administration’s Iraq policy, like Iraq itself, is in complete disarray. One day, the administration calls for a timetable, the next day, Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki objects to it. … One day, it’s stay the course, the next day, it’s change the course.”

But Mr. Bush said benchmarks will help show the American people that Iraqis are moving forward.

“It’s a condition, a base estimate. And that’s important for the American people to know. This notion about, you know, fixed timetable of withdrawal, in my judgment, is a — means defeat. You can’t leave until the job is done. Our mission is to get the job done as quickly as possible,” he said.

In his 15-minute opening statement, Mr. Bush said the time has come for the Iraqi government to begin moving quickly toward responsibility for its own fate.

“We’re pressing Iraq’s leaders to take bold measures to save their country. We’re making it clear that America’s patience is not unlimited. Yet we also understand the difficult challenges Iraq’s leaders face, and we will not put more pressure on the Iraqi government than it can bear,” he said.

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