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Reports add fuel to Iraq debate

Updates on the war are expected to pit Bush and Congress; they may also redefine military and political strategy.

September 02, 2007|Doyle McManus | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush and the Democratic-led Congress are heading for another collision over the war in Iraq this month, framed by a flurry of conflicting assessments of military and political progress, and culminating in an impassioned debate over how soon U.S. forces should be withdrawn.

Even before the debate has formally begun, officials on both sides are forecasting its likely course: The general who commands U.S. forces in Iraq will report that the current increase in troops has improved security, and will ask that it continue. Democrats will try again to impose a timetable for a withdrawal but acknowledge they don't have the votes in the Senate. Bush will continue to resist pressure for a major change in strategy but will weigh what aides call "adjustments."

On one level, the battle may merely look like a rerun of the fiery but abortive one that Congress staged only two months ago, when Senate Democrats failed to pass measures that would have forced Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.

"It's going to be 'Groundhog Day,' " predicted Mark Helmke, an aide to Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), who has criticized Bush's handling of the war.

But there could still be surprises.

Republican members of Congress and some Bush aides have urged the president to begin laying out a new strategy for next year, when the buildup of troops is scheduled to end.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who was widely criticized for cutting off debate on compromise measures in July, now says he is willing to seek a middle ground.

And even if the clash doesn't lead to an immediate change in policy, it may produce -- as a side effect -- an important debate over the future of the war. Administration officials say they recognize that the buildup cannot be sustained next year as the Army and Marine Corps run out of available troops, that political progress in Baghdad has fallen short and that U.S. strategy in Iraq must be redefined.

But the central elements of that strategy remain unresolved: How fast will the post-buildup drawdown be? How far will it go? How will the mission of the remaining forces be defined? What kind of Iraqi political order should the administration seek?

"The essential question is: What should our objective in Iraq be today?" said Dennis Ross, who was a Middle East negotiator under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Clinton. "The president says we're going to prevail without saying clearly what the objective is. There are people on the other side who say, 'Let's pull out,' but they need to spell out what happens next if you do. . . . I don't think this will be the center of the debate in September -- everybody has already staked out their turf -- but it ought to be."

A flurry of reports

This month's showdown was set up in the spring, when Congress agreed to fund Bush's additional 22,000 combat troops on the condition that he report by Sept. 15 on whether the offensive was working.

The first reports have already come in. An official "estimate" from the nation's intelligence agencies released last month found that the buildup had produced "uneven improvements in Iraq's security situation" and little or no political progress -- but warned that a U.S. withdrawal would make things worse. A draft report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, found that Iraq's government had met only three of the 18 benchmarks for political progress that the administration accepted as goals.

This week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, are to brief the president on their assessments. Next week, they are to deliver them in public before four committees of the House and Senate.

Petraeus and Crocker have frequently said they believe the buildup is making progress. Petraeus "wants to keep as much force on the ground as we possibly can, for as long as we possibly can," said one administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record and asked not to be identified.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are also scheduled to testify before Congress next week. That could provide a telling contrast. Officials say that Pace and the other members of the Joint Chiefs are worried that continuing the buildup too long would do serious damage to the Army and Marine Corps, and that they favor a significantly smaller force in Iraq next year.

The buildup has increased the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to about 162,000, from about 130,000 last year. Under current plans, the force will gradually shrink to its pre-buildup level of 130,000 by late next summer.

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