WASHINGTON — President Bush today used an interim assessment of the Iraq war that showed only mixed progress to urge a skeptical public and a restless Congress to stand by his "surge" strategy rather than push for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The White House's report to Congress revealed that the Iraqi government has made satisfactory progress on only eight of 18 benchmarks devised to gauge the success of blunting insurgent violence in Iraq and of stabilizing its government. Bush added that mixed results on two could go "one way or the other."
Despite the glass half-empty-or-half-full tone of the report, Bush pleaded for more time for his surge plan to take hold and asked Americans and federal lawmakers to reserve judgment on progress in Iraq until the White House submits its final report to Congress in September.
"Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the benchmarks," Bush said in opening remarks to reporters. "Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism."
Bush said the surge, which included the addition of thousands of troops sent to Iraq last winter, has only recently reached full capacity and needs more time before its impact can be fully measured.
He struck a defiant tone, saying he will start drawing down troops from Iraq when his military commanders say conditions on the ground are right, "not because pollsters say it's good politics."
The House of Representatives is expected to vote today on a troop withdrawal measure, with the Senate following soon thereafter. Bush also is facing mounting criticism of his war strategy from Republican lawmakers. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, have called for withdrawing most American forces in Iraq.
Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also have broken ranks with the administration.
Bush argued that the debate over Iraq is not about removing troops.
"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 higher," he said.
On Capitol Hill, early reaction to the report was as mixed as the report itself. House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio said the interim report showed enough progress to justify waiting for the full September report to re-evaluate.
"But we need to see more progress from the Iraqi people and their government on key political benchmarks where the progress has not been satisfactory," Boehner said.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was not as charitable.
"This progress report is like the guy who's falling from a 100-story building and says halfway down that everything's fine," Biden said. "If we continue the way we're going, with the president's failed strategy in Iraq, we're headed for a crash landing."
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W. Va., said Bush's course on Iraq is a recipe for doom.
"The president ignores a simple truth — the Iraqi government won't stand up until the United States stands down," Byrd said. "As long as the president commits our troops to referee this civil war in Iraq, the Iraqi government will continue to slow-walk increased security of their own."
(Margaret Talev and Renee Schoof contributed.)