Bush stays course, rebuffs demand for change

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 9, 2007 


U.S. and Iraqi soldiers conduct a raid Monday in Baqouba, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.


WASHINGTON — President Bush dug in Monday against demands for change in his Iraq policy, despite eroding support within his party and growing doubts that his troop increase will make a significant difference.

Through his spokesman Bush urged patience at the start of what's likely to be a rough week for his policy. Members of Congress returned to Washington from their July Fourth break feeling heat from voters to come up with a plan to bring the troops home.

"There is no intensifying discussion about reducing troops," said White House spokesman Tony Snow, rejecting reports that internal administration discussions were doing precisely that. "You are talking about a surge that literally just got completed, in terms of troop complements, two weeks ago. ... Don't expect us to lift a veil and have a whole different strategy."

The Senate got back to work Monday by debating the first in a series of proposals intended to wind down or pull out of Iraq. Senate votes later in the week could test Republican loyalty to Bush.

Three senior Republican senators have questioned Bush's war strategy recently, although it's not clear that any of them are ready to break with the president when voting on legislation.

Speculation about a possible policy shift increased over the weekend when Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled a trip to Latin America to work on the Iraq progress report.

Snow said Bush wouldn't bow to political pressure for a new strategy.

Also this week, the administration is expected to send Congress a progress report on Iraq that will provide little evidence of progress. The assessment, tentatively planned for delivery late in the week, could provide more ammunition to war critics.

"I'm not sure everyone's going to get an A on the first report," Snow conceded. He downplayed the significance of the report, calling it an early snapshot that shouldn't be used "to draw any broad-based conclusions."

Bush and his aides have insisted that any discussion about changing course should be put off until at least Sept. 15, when U.S. military commanders will deliver another progress report. But the timetable could accelerate if the outlook in Iraq doesn't improve and more Republicans abandon the president.

"The president's Iraq strategy is not working. We cannot wait until September to act," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "We have an opportunity in the next couple weeks to truly change our Iraq strategy to make Americans more secure, more safe. The question is whether President Bush and Senate Republicans will join in that effort."

Despite unease in Congress and polls showing that Americans have lost faith in Bush's Iraq policy, Democrats don't have the votes they need to force a change. In the Senate, about a dozen Republicans would have to align with Democrats to chart a new course and get it past pro-Bush Republicans exploiting Senate rules, and even that wouldn't be enough to override a presidential veto.

At least 16 Senate Republicans would have to defect to give Democrats enough votes to overcome a veto, and an override in the House of Representatives could be even more difficult.

Still, lawmakers in both parties agree that congressional feelings toward the war are in flux. Republican loyalty will be tested this week as the Senate debates war-related amendments to the annual Defense Department authorization bill.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a longtime war skeptic, said she now was seriously considering voting for binding legislation that would require withdrawing most combat forces from Iraq.

"We have to move from the nonbinding to a binding approach in changing our strategy in Iraq. It's a message we need to send to the administration and the Iraqi government. We can no longer countenance the loss of lives and the exponential growth of violence," she said Monday.

Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who's already facing negative campaign ads for his support of the war, said Monday: "I gotta believe the president's looking at Plan B."

Coleman said he didn't support a Democratic timeline for withdrawal soon but that he'd back legislation with a longer timeline.

"We need to redeploy; we need significant withdrawal sometime next year. I think there will be a lot of votes before September. We're all kind of struggling for what's the right path. There's going to be a Plan B. So the question is whether it's fleshed out in September or whether it's fleshed out before," he said.

The administration's progress report is expected to highlight the few bright spots in Iraq. Sectarian violence is down in some parts of Baghdad. In Anbar province, a hotbed for insurgency, Sunni leaders are cooperating with the U.S. military against Islamic terrorists.

But administration officials acknowledge that the Iraqi government has failed to meet benchmarks for progress in transforming the former dictatorship into a stable democracy. The government remains split along sectarian lines, the security forces are unreliable and corruption is a persistent problem.

Some prominent Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders have urged their followers to engage in sectarian warfare. Iraqi leaders warned Monday that the country could descend into chaos if U.S. troops leave too quickly.

In another sign of potential trouble, Turkey has amassed troops along the Iraq border as a warning sign to Kurdish rebels operating from the Kurdish region in Iraq. A cross-border attack by Turkey would create new problems in the most stable and prosperous part of Iraq.

"It does kind of feel that we are not going to make it to September before there is a major change of course in Iraq," said Loren Thompson, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute, a nonpartisan research center.

(Nancy A. Youssef, Margaret Talev and Matt Stearns contributed to this article.)

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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