- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2007

President Bush this morning said that he realizes the American people are suffering from war fatigue, but that the U.S. military must stay in Iraq long enough to give warring Iraqi factions a chance to reconcile politically, or else Iraq will become a safe haven for terrorists.

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. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to see the day when our brave service men and women can start coming home.

But Mr. Bush said any withdrawal of U.S. troops “not linked to the success of our operations would be a disaster.”

The president called the press conference to announce the results of an interim report to Congress on the progress the U.S.-backed Iraqi government has made in meeting key benchmarks since Mr. Bush surged about 30,000 more U.S. troops to Baghdad and surrounding areas over the last six months.

The report said the Iraqis have made satisfactory progress on about half of 18 benchmarks, while making unsatisfactory progress on the other half.

Most of the progress has been made in meeting military benchmarks, while most of the lack of progress has been political.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, has been unable to bring the dominant Shiite 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 the U.S.-backed Iraqi government has not made progress in meeting key political benchmarks.

While Bush announced last winter he was ordering thousands of additional troops to the war zone, the full complement has only arrived in recent weeks. “The full surge in this respect has only just begun,” the report said.

Our strategy is built on the premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress, so it’s not surprising that political progress is lagging behind the security gains we are seeing, Mr. Bush said.

Democrats immediately criticized the presidents report, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, saying it 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 Iraqs factions fight a deadly civil war, Mr. Reid said.

Congressional Democratic leaders returned from a week-long recess Monday and announced that they would renew efforts to pass legislation mandating a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by next 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 has this week waged a semi-public lobbying effort with key senators, asking them to wait until September — when Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is scheduled to give an update — before they judge the success of the surge.

But Mr. Reid said the U.S. must change course now, not in September.

It is time for the President to listen to the American people and do what is necessary to protect this nation. That means admitting his Iraq policy has failed, Mr. Reid said.

Mr. Bush, however, said the real debate over Iraq 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, he said.

The president, speaking in the newly renovated press briefing room one day after it was opened, was animated at times in defending his decision-making in Iraq.

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 doneI 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.

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