Adopting a forceful tone, Bush told U.S. lawmakers to stop meddling in Iraq policy. And he warned that any move toward withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would result in “mass killings on a horrific scale.”
“I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war,” Bush told a news conference at the White House on July 12. “I think they ought to be funding the troops.”
Yet just hours after the Republican president spoke, the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives -- the lower chamber of Congress -- voted 223-to-201 to pass a bill that calls for U.S. combat troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by April 2008.
The showdown between the president and mostly Democratic lawmakers -- four Republican congressmen broke with their party on the vote -- came as the White House released its interim report on the U.S. military surge in Iraq. Portraying a very mixed picture, the report cited some “satisfactory” political and security progress but acknowledged shortcomings in several areas.
The document, required by Congress, rated the war and the performance of the Iraqi government on 18 benchmarks. It found tangible progress on eight benchmarks, mostly in military operations. But the study called for more progress on 10 other benchmarks, most involving the government's ability to rule a divided country.
"Our strategy is built on the premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress." -- U.S. President Bush
The good news, Bush said, was that Iraqis have provided three army brigades that they promised for military operations in and around Baghdad. The government is also spending more than $7 billion to train, equip, and modernize its armed forces.
But Bush, saying he welcomes debate on the war, conceded not all was positive.
“In eight other others, the Iraqis have much more work to do,” he said. “For example, they have not done enough to prepare for local elections or pass a law to share oil revenues. And in two remaining areas, progress was too mixed to be characterized one way or the other."
Framing The Debate
Bush said the debate in Washington is sometimes portrayed as being between those who want to keep U.S. forces in Iraq and those who want to bring them home. Instead, he said, the two sides should be defined as those who believe the war in Iraq is futile and those who think it can be won and that the effort is worth the cost.
"Our strategy is built on the premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress, so it's not surprising that political progress is lagging behind the security gains we are seeing," the president said.
Several influential senators from Bush's Republican Party recently broke with him on Iraq, though it's not yet clear whether they'll vote with opposition Democrats on pending war legislation in the upper chamber of Congress.
Asked about these senators, Bush said he has long valued their advice and listened to their concerns, and will continue to do so.
Bush also said he's aware of the political realities he faces -- namely, that a majority in Congress and an even larger majority of the American people oppose his handling of the war. But he said his strategy isn't based on politics.
Senator Dick Durbin (epa file photo)
"When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will be because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it'll be good politics,” Bush said. “The strategy I announced in January is designed to seize the initiative and create those conditions. It's aimed at helping the Iraqis strengthen their government so that it can function even amid violence."
Shortly after Bush's meeting with reporters, a group of Democratic senators held their own news conference on Capitol Hill.
Senator Dick of the midwestern state of Illinois said Bush appears oblivious to the realities in both Iraq and the United States.
"He's out of touch with the reality of the war in Iraq, he's out of touch with the American people,” Durbin said. “This benchmark assessment report, which we've received, doesn't give us much hope. We've been told over and over again we can't expect a military victory in Iraq, it will take a political victory for us to finally see stability. And yet as the benchmark assessment reports tell us, there's little evidence of political progress in Iraq today -- and certainly more violence and death."
Soon after Durbin spoke, the House of Representatives passed the bill to require the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by next spring. The measure envisions a limited residual force to train Iraqis, protect U.S. assets, and fight al-Qaeda and other terrorists.
It was the third recent House bill calling for a withdrawal from Iraq, but only the first to be passed.
The ball is now in the Senate’s court. The upper chamber so far has fallen well short of the 60 votes needed to approve a withdrawal. But more votes are expected next week, and Democratic leaders say they remain hopeful that more Republican senators will break with Bush on Iraq.
The president has vowed to veto any bill containing a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.