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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 July 2007, 16:53 GMT 17:53 UK
Bush fights for time, new strategy
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent BBC News website

President Bush
President Bush: "America is not going to back down."

The White House's assessment about whether the Iraqi government has achieved certain benchmarks says more about the politics of Washington than it does about the realities of Iraq.

The war is now being fought as keenly in US politics as it is on the ground.

The president is struggling desperately to hold back a rebellion among his own Republican supporters in the Democrat-controlled Congress and he hopes there is enough in this assessment to buy him some time.

The interim report is not the last word and is a mixed bag, giving some ammunition to those who oppose the continuation of the US role in the war and enough hope for the president who says that it "can and must be won".

He has to make a second and final report by 15 September under the law passed in May that financed the surge of 30,000 US troops to try to implement the new strategy of gaining and holding ground against the insurgents.

The 15 September report will be based on the assessments of the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador there, Ryan Crocker. Both men will brief President Bush personally, and the final report will be much more definitive.

General Petraeus would have to give a very pessimistic report for Mr Bush to change his policy

By then the surge will have been fully in place and its operations running for nearly three months (the last reinforcements arrived only last month) and it will be possible to get some better idea of its chances of success or failure.

However, even now Mr Bush is trying to lower expectations that it will be the last word. During a news conference held to discuss this report, he said that he would be looking by 15 September for signs of the "beginning of progress " in the negative areas.

Pressing on

To judge by his language he is minded to go on with the war in any case.

"America is not going to back down," he declared. He spoke of "surrendering the future of Iraq to al-Qaeda", of "mass killings" and a "safe haven" being created for terrorists and raised the prospect of US troops "having to return" later on.

He is, however, having to make some concessions to his opposition and is trying to stress common ground by talking of creating conditions for what he called a "more limited role" for the US in Iraq.

This is not going to be enough for the Democrats, who want out as soon as possible. But wavering Republicans might be kept on side for the time being.

General Petraeus would have to give a very pessimistic report for Mr Bush to change his policy. And since it was General Petraeus who wrote the US army manual on counterinsurgency - the central tenet of which is that such operations require time - he is unlikely to say after three months that it is time to stop.

Indeed, Mr Bush was extolling the reported success in Anbar province where tribal leaders have reportedly turned against al-Qaeda elements. So even now he is holding out for the hope of progress.

Security first

The key element in the administration's defence of its policy is that security in Iraq has to precede the politics (even though the benchmarks are not separated in that way). This insistence is interpreted by opponents as an excuse for the failure of the Iraqi government to meet key benchmarks - reconciliation with the Sunnis and the sharing of oil revenues for example.

So if the security benchmarks have failed, everything has failed. Two examples illustrate the unclear results.

Benchmark XII is about "Reducing the level of sectarian violence in Iraq and eliminating militia control of local security". Here the assessment is mixed: "The Government of Iraq - with substantial Coalition assistance - has made satisfactory progress toward reducing sectarian violence but has shown unsatisfactory progress towards eliminating militia control of local security."

Benchmark XV aimed at "Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces units capable of operating independently". The results so far? "The Iraqi Government has made unsatisfactory progress toward increasing the number of Iraqi Security Forces units capable of operating independently."

One can see that these reports are not exactly shining with excellence.

In the administration's view, it is worth fighting on. And to judge from the signs now, that is likely to be the administration's view in September. The question is whether Congress can force a change in that view.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


IRAQ BENCHMARKS - US INTERIM REPORT

  SATISFACTORY NOT SATISFACTORY
Constitutional review  
De-Ba'athification laws   X
Distribution of oil revenues  
Independent electoral commission  
Disarming of militias  
Training of three key Iraqi army brigades  
Providing Iraqi commanders with authority to pursue US troop "surge" without political interference  
Even handed law enforcement by Iraqi forces  
Reduce sectarian violence  
Establish joint US-Iraqi security stations in Baghdad  
Increase number of Iraqi security forces capable of operating independently  
Protect rights of minority political parties  
Allocation of $10bn in Iraqi reconstruction  
Ensure political authorities are not undermining security forces  
Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semi-autonomous regions  
Enacting and implementing legislation addressing amnesty Mixed  Mixed 
Ensure that the Baghdad security plan will not provide a safe haven for any outlaws, regardless of their political affiliation  
Establishing supporting political, media, economic and services committees in Baghdad in support of the security plan  



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