Monday, July 9, 2007

White House Seeks to Lower Iraq Report Expectations

July 9 (Bloomberg) -- Bush administration officials sought to lower expectations for a report this month on the Iraq war, saying it was unrealistic to expect the study would show significant progress in meeting military and political goals. The report, which must be submitted to Congress by July 15, is just an interim assessment delivered at an early stage of the new U.S. military drive to quell sectarian and insurgent violence, said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow and Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. ``You are not going to expect all the benchmarks to be met at the beginning of something,'' Snow said. Whitman called the report ``a snapshot that's very much at the front end'' of the U.S. offensive. The report will be delivered as Congress debates several measures to limit U.S. military operations in Iraq and amid reports that administration officials are debating a possible change of course. Defense Secretary Robert Gates yesterday canceled a trip to Latin America so he could remain in Washington for meetings on Iraq. Whitman said today that Gates participated in one strategy session this morning and would be involved in others during the week.

The New York Times reported today that the administration is discussing whether President George W. Bush should announce an intention to gradually withdraw troops from high-casualty areas in order to stop more Republican lawmakers from turning against the war.

`Way Ahead'

Snow said the Times story ``got way ahead of the facts.'' He said there was no debate within the administration ``on withdrawing forces right now from Iraq.'' In a later briefing, Snow told reporters, ``There is no intensifying discussion about reducing troops.'' Still, Pentagon spokesman Whitman didn't dispute that the administration meetings on Iraq this week had grown in importance, leading to Gates's decision to stay home.``It was a realization that this week it was going to be important for the secretary to be a part of these policy meetings that were going to be taking place,'' Whitman said. Bush must report to Congress by July 15 on the Iraqi government's progress in meeting a host of benchmarks. They include revising the constitution to encourage political participation by Sunnis, relaxing legal restrictions on members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, guaranteeing all major ethnic and religious groups a share of oil revenue and holding new local elections. On the military front, the report is supposed to measure progress the Iraqi government has made in providing security forces and neighborhood outposts in Baghdad to support the U.S. military offensive.

Iraq Platform

The Senate this week is taking up a $648.8 billion defense policy measure that will be a platform for many amendments to force a change in Iraq policy. Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the Senate may vote as soon as tomorrow on an amendment offered by Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, that would require all troops to get longer breaks between deployments.Another amendment will be offered by Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. It would set a goal of withdrawing most American combat troops by March 31 of next year.

Study Group

Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar is seeking support for a plan to adopt the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Commission, which proposed setting the conditions for withdrawing most U.S. combat troops by March 31, 2008. A limited number of troops would stay behind to train Iraqis and conduct counterterrorism offensives. U.S. military deaths in the Iraq conflict have climbed to almost 3,600 as rebels continue to target American forces with roadside bombs, gunfire and other forms of attack. May was the third bloodiest month of the war for the U.S., with 120 combat deaths. The tide of Republican defections from Bush's camp grew during the July 4 recess, putting pressure on Bush for a new strategy. Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico joined Senators Richard Lugar of Indiana and George Voinovich of Ohio in calling for a new tack in Iraq. ``The Iraqis are not stepping up to the plate, and it's been our American troops that are bearing the brunt of the burden,'' Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said today on Cable News Network. The White House has urged congressional Republicans to maintain solidarity on Iraq, at least until September, to give the U.S. offensive a chance to work.

Hold Off

The administration has appealed for lawmakers to hold off until a mid-September progress report by Army General David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to the country. Reid today said today that the votes on Iraq will make clear where senators stand. ``I think we will find in the next couple of weeks whether the Republicans who have said publicly they think the present course should change are willing to vote with us,'' he said.

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