Bush says no shift on Iraq, report mixed

180.jpgUS President George W. Bush acknowledged on Thursday his Iraq strategy had made only limited progress but put off considering a change of course in the unpopular war until a crucial September report.An interim White House report released just before Bush spoke gave the Iraqi government mixed marks in meeting political and security goals, providing more ammunition for war opponents demanding that Bush start ending US military involvement.

Bush said that “war fatigue” had set in among the American public and Congress but that it was premature to talk about bringing US forces home, less than a month after all of an  additional 28,000 US troops had arrived as part of a new attempt to boost security.

Trying to buy time in the face of a growing revolt among fellow Republicans over his Iraq strategy, Bush urged lawmakers to withhold judgement until he receives a broader assessment.

It will be presented in September by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

“We’ll also have a clearer picture of how the new strategy is unfolding, and be in a better position to judge where we need to make any adjustments,” Bush told a news conference.

Signalling the next report could be pivotal, Bush said he would consider “making another decision, if need be” at that time.

Holding his first full-scale news conference in nearly two months, Bush’s tone was at times strident, at times beseeching, as he defended the US role in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

A USA Today/Gallup poll this week showed more than seven in 10 Americans favour withdrawing nearly all US troops by April, and several surveys show Bush’s approval ratings the lowest of any American president in decades.

Bush said he understood the growing opposition to the war but that he was the commander-in-chief and would rely on the advice of his military commanders.

“I guess I’m like any other political figure. Everybody wants to be loved — just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don’t enable you to be loved,” Bush said.

To demonstrate US commitment to the Middle East, Bush said he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to unspecified countries in the region in early August.

Republicans breaking ranks

The White House report is being sent to Congress as several prominent Republicans have broken ranks with Bush on Iraq, adding momentum to Democratic-led efforts to try to force a scaling back of troop levels more than four years after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the White House report confirmed that the Iraq war was “headed in a dangerous direction.” “The Iraqi government has not met the key political benchmarks it has set for itself and Iraqi security forces continue to lag well behind expectations,” he said.

In another day of violence in Iraq, a suicide bomber in the northern town of Tal Afar on Thursday killed seven guests celebrating the wedding of an Iraqi policeman.

In Baghdad, an Iraqi photographer and driver working for Reuters were killed in what police said was US military action and which witnesses described as a helicopter attack.

Drafted by White House officials with leading contributions from Petraeus and Crocker, the report gave the Iraqi government a satisfactory grade on eight of 18 goals set by Congress. It showed that on eight of the benchmarks, Baghdad’s performance was unsatisfactory, and mixed on two others.

“Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks,” Bush said.

“Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism,” he added.

The interim report showed limited progress by the Iraqi government in meeting goals for political reconciliation such as passing a law to share oil revenues. It also warned of the risk of further attacks by Al Qaeda in coming months.

“The security situation in Iraq remains complex and extremely challenging,” the report said.

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