Back from vacation, Congress to renew debate on Iraq

A volunteer with Veterans for Peace puts up crosses in Santa Monica, Calif., representing U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war.
A volunteer with Veterans for Peace puts up crosses in Santa Monica, Calif., representing U.S. soldiers killed in the Iraq war. Richard Lui / AP

WASHINGTON — Congress returns from its summer recess this week still split along partisan lines about whether there’s progress in Iraq and what policy on Iraq would best protect U.S. security interests.

Democrats and Republicans don't intend to renew their formal debate about what to do next in Iraq until after Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker report next Monday, but it's clear where both sides will line up.

Republicans, led by President Bush, say there have been military gains, citing as evidence such things as numbers of enemy forces killed and captured and more tips from Iraqis. They say this shows that Bush's troop "surge" is working and deserves support.

Most Democrats want to withdraw U.S. combat troops. Some of them acknowledge some military gains, but note that violence remains high. They stress that American intelligence experts say the prospects for Iraqi politicians finding a political solution to the violence are dim. That assessment was seconded by a Government Accountability Office draft report leaked Thursday that found that Iraq’s leaders have failed to meet 15 of their own 18 benchmarks for progress toward peace and stability. The report also says that questions remain about whether sectarian violence has been reduced.

Statistics that McClatchy Newspapers collected in Baghdad don’t show any drop in violence. Civilian deaths in the capital were about the same in July as in December, before the American troop increase began. U.S. officials in Baghdad declined to provide data to back up their claims of lower violence.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the leaked GAO report and other independent assessments showed that the president’s strategy had failed to deliver a political solution for Iraq. Reid continues to back a timeline for withdrawal, but has been talking to Republicans who oppose one in hopes that they can find a common approach.

“I remain absolutely committed to changing course in Iraq and bringing our troops home. There are a number of different ways to do that legislatively, but enough Republicans need to break with the president to give us the 60 votes necessary to do so,” Reid said Friday. One possibility is a measure that would require more rest time for troops between deployments to Iraq. The measure was defeated in the 100-member Senate, where Democrats have only 49 votes on Iraq policy while Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., is out sick, and 60 are required on most important issues.

Democrats tried to mandate the beginning of a troop withdrawal last spring, but Bush vetoed their plan May 2 and they lacked the votes to override him.

The costs of the war so far are more than 3,700 American troops killed and more than 27,660 wounded, and millions of Iraqis killed, wounded or forced to flee. Congress has appropriated $477 billion for the war since it began. Bush reportedly is considering asking for $30 billion to $50 billion more for the troop buildup, on top of the $150 billion he’s seeking for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for next year.

Congress has the power to cut off money, but war critics are unwilling to do that and deprive the Americans who are fighting the war the supplies that they need.

Congressional committees will hold hearings this week on the report from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, and another report from an independent commission on Iraqi security forces.

In August, Bush said American forces had made advances against al Qaida and Shiite Muslim extremists, that sectarian violence had sharply decreased in Baghdad and that Iraqis were cooperating with U.S. forces in some areas and making local progress, such as reopening banks in one city and establishing an anti-corruption commission in another.

He also welcomed a vague agreement among top Iraqi officials to advance key long-stalled political reforms, including efforts to bring minority Sunni Muslims back into the government. He noted, however, that the reforms must pass the parliament.

House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio shared Bush’s upbeat assessment. “Throughout Iraq, General Petraeus’ strategy is working to drive out extremism and bring freedom to a part of the world that needs it most, and America will be safer because of it," Boehner said.

However, a recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq — a consensus report from all American intelligence agencies — concluded that violence remains high and forecast that the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki would become more precarious in the months ahead.

Iraq's Cabinet has been paralyzed since Sunnis left it. Tariq al Hashemi, the Sunni vice president, said he wasn't happy with the recent vague plan for political reform and gave Maliki a list of demands.

“I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that additional steps need to be taken, and there’s still going to be a difficult row to hoe,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Bishop said. “But to dismiss this recent development and all the other successes we’ve seen over the last several months as insignificant in an effort to force a withdrawal is just outrageous.”

Democrats see it differently.

“The purpose of the surge was to provide the Iraqis ‘breathing room’ for political reconciliation — and the Maliki government has utterly failed,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement.

Democrats also say they’re not surprised that American forces have been successful, even while Iraqi factions keep fighting one another.

“I don’t think this debate should be about the surge, because, not surprisingly, when you have the finest military force in the world and you add more of them, you get more security where they are,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., the chair of the House Armed Forces Committee strategic forces subcommittee. But the United States can't maintain 160,000 troops in Iraq beyond next March because of manpower constraints, she said, and keeping so many there limits the country’s ability to respond to other crises.

“People will say ... if we lose, then Iran is dangerous, and I don’t dispute that,” Tauscher said. “But is the Bush administration really suggesting that the way to deal with Iran is to be pinned down in Iraq?”

Like most Democrats, Tauscher said a withdrawal must be orderly and safe for the troops, that some American forces should remain in and near Iraq, and that a new stabilization force would be needed. Iraqis can’t end the sectarian violence themselves because their police force is too compromised by links with Shiite extremists blamed for ethnic cleansing. Neighboring countries are needed to stabilize Iraq, and it may be necessary for the United States to convince them to do it through diplomacy, she said.

Charles A. Kupchan, a former Clinton White House national-security expert who's at Georgetown University, said he saw little chance for consensus between Republicans and Democrats on Iraq.

Part of the reason is that the war has been so polarizing, he said. “One measure of how bad things are in Iraq is that no one even knows what standards to use. It’s such a desperate situation that the normal ways of measuring progress are futile.”

Another reason consensus is difficult is that the United States is more ideologically divided on foreign affairs than at any time since the 19th century.

“I think there is a path to more cooperation across the aisle, and that is if the Democrats were to focus much more on Plan B and much less on deadlines for withdrawal,” Kupchan said. “I don’t expect that to happen.”

“If you focus less on deadlines and funding threats and more on strategy, you’d find that Republicans start defecting from the president,” he said.

The danger of partisanship, he said, is “we just become beset by division and our foreign policy becomes insolvent.”

(Leila Fadel contributed to this article from Baghdad.)