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Progress claims draw skepticism

WASHINGTON – Launching a new assault on the president’s war strategy, congressional Democrats have begun to dismiss the Bush administration claims of military progress as unreliable spin ahead of testimony Monday from the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

In a shift from recent comments that the military “surge” seemed to be making some gains, Democrats are now questioning the statistics being used to back the reports of progress.

They also are casting Gen. David Petraeus’ report as a product of the White House rather than an independent analysis by a military commander.

“By carefully manipulating the statistics, the Bush-Petraeus report will try to persuade us that violence in Iraq is decreasing and thus the surge is working,” said Illinois Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, in a speech Friday in Washington. “Even if the figures were right, the conclusion is wrong.”

The new attacks are not without political risk for Democrats, who are sensitive to accusations of abandoning the troops and have sought to avoid criticizing the military as they declared the war in Iraq was a lost cause.

By implication, their new criticisms cast doubt on the credibility of a military commander who nine months ago won Senate confirmation without a single dissenting Democratic vote.

Durbin said he did not want “to question the integrity of General Petraeus.”

“I respect him very much,” the senator said. “And I believe he is an extremely competent military leader who has been given an almost impossible military assignment.”

The Democratic rhetoric in advance of Petraeus’ scheduled testimony before two House committees Monday underscores how polarized the war debate in Washington remains. It also highlights how deeply congressional Democrats distrust the Bush administration.

“I no longer can believe almost anything I am told,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Tauscher, who discussed the war at a forum Friday, recently returned from Iraq, where, she said, the lack of security reinforced her unease about the picture of progress being advanced by the Bush administration.

When lawmakers returned to Washington from their summer break this week, Democratic leaders talked of compromising with Republicans to pass war-related legislation that would stop short of setting a deadline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. In July, Democrats had seemed confident in their drive for a withdrawal and refused to compromise.

But two independent reports this week – one from the Government Accountability Office and another from a panel of retired military officers – renewed the focus on the persistent shortcomings of the Iraqi government and armed forces.

At the same time, questions emerged about the statistics being cited by the U.S. military to justify its claims that violence has decreased dramatically in recent months.

David Walker, the GAO’s comptroller general, pointed to substantial disagreements within the U.S. government about how sectarian violence is being calculated. And a Washington Post report cited criticism from the intelligence community about the military’s claims.


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