WASHINGTON – With a surprise Labor Day landing in western Iraq to lay the groundwork for a renewed campaign for the war on Capitol Hill this month, President Bush asserted that his escalation of U.S. forces is helping to restore order.
If security gains in Iraq continue, Bush said during his inspection Monday, the U.S. will be able to “maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces.”
“When we begin to draw down troops from Iraq, it will be from a position of strength and success, not from a position of fear and failure,” Bush told several hundred Marines assembled at an air base in Anbar province. Any drawdown will be based on a “calm” assessment of conditions on the ground by military leaders, Bush said, not the “nervous” reaction of politicians watching opinion polls.
The president, making his third appearance in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein began in March 2003, landed in the heart of a province where the military points to gains in security since the start of a surge of troops earlier this year. That escalation has targeted Baghdad but also includes thousands of Marines in Anbar province.
The commander in chief’s unannounced arrival in a remote and contested region of Iraq was intended to serve as a dramatic opening to two weeks of congressional hearings starting today, in which Democratic leaders will question not only gains made with the military surge, but also the future course of the war.
“The strategy we put into place earlier this year was designed to help the Iraqis improve their security,” Bush said in Iraq, “and that is exactly the effect it is having in places like Anbar. … If the kind of success we are now seeing continues, it will be possible to maintain the same level of security with fewer American forces.”
Bush met with Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. After an 11-hour flight aboard Air Force One, the president spent about six hours on the base before heading to Australia for a summit of the leaders of Pacific Rim nations meeting in Sydney this week.
Al-Asad Air Base, temporary home for 10,000 U.S. military personnel, is the center of power for coalition forces in a region where tribal leaders are credited with regaining control from insurgents who had made the region one of Iraq’s most dangerous.
Bush, confident that Petraeus will make a convincing case before Congress about the progress of the troop surge, is determined to carry the mission into spring and seek more than $150 billion in added war spending.
Democratic congressional leaders, seeing scant progress, will look for ways to start drawing down U.S. forces in a conflict that has cost nearly 4,000 American lives and strained mlitary resources. As the White House prepares to give Congress a report on the benchmarks that Democrats have demanded by Sept. 15, Petraeus will deliver his own assessment in congressional testimony Sept. 10 and 11 – the sixth anniversary of the al-Qaida terrorist attacks that Bush often cites as he argues for staying the course in Iraq. Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, also will testify.
And as a new budget year opens in October, the administration will seek at least $150 billion more for war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s clear from speeches that Bush has delivered this summer and from his appearance in Iraq on Monday that the administration is confident it can make a case for continuation of a deployment that has escalated the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq to 160,000, and that he can fend off Democratic demands for a withdrawal. The Democrats have not attracted enough Republican support to override a veto.
Democratic leaders are signaling they may be open to a compromise.
One proposal is to cap the already extended 15-month deployments of troops, effectively forcing the military to start scaling back forces next spring.
“Petraeus and Crocker will come in with a report that basically wants to continue the surge,” predicted Lee Hamilton, co-chairman of the Iraq Study Group and a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. “I think the surge will continue into next year. The Congress will not be able to stop it.”
He added, “The Republicans’ discipline has been remarkable. Even if they lose a few senators, it’s not going to hurt their position.”
A few Republicans have peeled away from the president, notably Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who recently called for the start of a drawdown by Christmas. But Democratic leaders such as Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois see the challenge as finding a way to attach conditions to spending that ultimately would force the administration to scale back forces.
“Many of us are reaching the end of our patience here,” said Durbin, who recently returned from a visit to Iraq. “We have to figure out a way to keep the troops safe, but also start bringing them home.”
For the most part, the milestones of military and Iraqi political progress set forth by Congress as a condition for continuing funding have not been reached. The Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress, is expected to tell the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that Iraq’s leaders have failed to meet all but three of those 18 benchmarks. The White House delivered a more optimistic, though mixed, review of progress in July.
A National Intelligence Estimate, a consensus view of 16 intelligence agencies, reported in late August, “There have been measurable but uneven improvements in Iraq’s security situation.”
An escalation in violence has been “checked for now, and overall attack levels across Iraq have fallen during seven of the last nine weeks,” it said, but overall violence “remains high, Iraq’s sectarian groups remain unreconciled, Al Qaeda retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks, and to date, Iraq political leaders remain unable to govern effectively.”
The administration points to contained violence in critical regions – within Baghdad itself, and in Anbar province – as a sign that the surge is starting to provide “breathing room” needed for the Iraqi government to pursue a political reconciliation among warring religious sects and stabilize a war-torn nation.
“There are unmistakable signs that our strategy is achieving the objectives we set out,” Bush said in a recent address to the American Legion. “Our new strategy is showing results in terms of security.”
Calling on Congress to heed the words of Petraeus and Crocker – to “hear these men out” – Bush has downplayed the lack of progress on the political front.
“It’s going to take time for the recent progress we have seen in security to translate into political progress,” Bush told the American Legion. “In short, it makes no sense to respond to military progress by claiming that we have failed because Iraq’s parliament has yet to pass every law it said it would.”
Yet some experts question whether sufficient progress has been made on either the military or political front since the president announced in January that he would deploy 21,500 more troops – a surge that has grown to 28,000 since then.
And increasingly, congressional leaders are calling into question the ability of al-Maliki to take advantage of the additional security U.S. forces are providing.