Big battle over Iraq looms in Washington

Bush to face off with Democrats ahead of series of reports on war effort.

THE fate of America’s war effort in Iraq is hinging on a pivotal battle at home over the next few weeks between President George W. Bush and a Democrat-controlled Congress.

Fresh from a month-long recess, lawmakers yesterday began a series of marathon hearings that will lead up next week to the blockbuster by Iraq’s top military commander, General David Petraeus.

The signs of a deepening rift over war policy look even more ominous, in the wake of damning findings in the first report to Congress by a legislative investigative and auditing arm.

In the face of incessant criticism, Mr Bush, who on Monday made a surprise eight-hour visit to the Anbar province in Iraq, talked of security gains and sectarian reconciliation.

Significantly, he also raised the prospect of American troop withdrawal in what some believe was an attempt to embrace and pre-empt the hearings in Congress.

However, it did little to quell the combative mood of Democrats and some Republicans who have had a reading from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). It painted a bleak picture of Iraq: high level of violence, little political progress and mixed results on security.

This despite a decision by the Bush administration to add 30,000 soldiers, swelling troop numbers to 164,000.

In its 100-page report, the GAO said that the Iraqis had “met three, partially met four, and did not meet 11 of its 18 benchmarks”.

Congress had established the benchmarks in law, based on targets for progress set earlier this year by the Iraqi government itself.

Asked to assess the US-backed Iraqi government, GAO’s chief, Comptroller-General David Walker, told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “I think you have to say it is dysfunctional.”

The assessment provided fresh ammunition for lawmakers demanding troop withdrawals from what they term a “civil war” in Iraq.

“Only three of these 18 benchmarks have actually been met,” Democratic Senator John Kerry said at the committee hearing.

“No matter what spin we may hear in the coming days, this independent assessment is a failing grade for a policy that simply isn’t working.”

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, an administration critic, maintained: “How many more American deaths and casualties and billions and billions of dollars…are we going to continue to invest, and for what?”

The congressional debate on the Iraq war will be shaped by two other reports as well.

Today, retired Marine-General James Jones will give Congress his assessment of Iraqi forces and their ability to take over the country’s national security.

The crucial testimony, however, will be that by Gen Petraeus and US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker next Monday.

They will give their assessment of the effects of the troop surge, especially around Baghdad, and offer recommendations for future policy.

In an interview with ABC News television, Gen Petraeus revealed that the United States might begin bringing some troops home from Iraq in March next year to avoid strains on the military.

Republican support for the President – who will ask Congress this month for an additional US$50 billion (S$76 billion) to fund the war on top of the US$147 billion he proposed in February this year – depends on the testimony of the top general.

If he can convince lawmakers that the security gains won in recent months are substantial and point towards a bigger trend, Republicans might be more likely to hold out until next March.

Better still if Mr Bush promises small troop drawdowns by the end of the year.

Administration officials have disclosed that he is likely to make these symbolic cuts when he responds to the hearings with his own report by next Saturday.

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