Bush faces new showdown over Iraq policy

WASHINGTON - US President George W. Bush on Monday faced a fresh attack from congressional Democrats over his Iraq policy, after a damning report predicted the war-torn country would fail to meet key benchmarks.

Democrats geared up for a new push for a US exit from Iraq a surge in bloodshed over the weekend and a growing swell of discontent from the public and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Bracing for the worst, Defense Secretary Robert Gates cancelled a planned trip to Latin America while the Bush administration prepared to emphasize the positives ahead of the July 15 release of an interim report on Iraqi progress.

Citing senior administration officials, The Washington Post said Sunday that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government was unlikely to meet any of the goals set by Bush when he announced a major shift in US Iraq policy last January.

Bush had vowed that boosting US troop levels would re-establish security on the ground so that Maliki's government could "take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November" and make legislative progress.

In addition, the US Congress this year passed a law containing 18 goals as part of a war-funding measure that set a September deadline for a reassessment of the situation on the ground.

Part of that deal called for an interim report, due next week, which concludes that US combat deaths have escalated, violence has spread beyond Baghdad and sectarianism has further polarized Iraq, the newspaper said.

"The security progress we're making in Iraq is real," a senior intelligence official in Baghdad was quoted as saying, "but it's only in part of the country and there's not enough political progress to get us over the line in September."

The US administration's interim report says that Sunni tribal leaders in Al-Anbar province are turning against Al-Qaeda, that sectarian killings were down in June, and that Iraqi political leaders last month agreed on a unified response to the bombing of a major religious shrine.

However, such rosy assessments clashed with realities on the ground, as Iraq was left reeling by a series of vicious attacks, including a truck bomb blast Saturday that killed 140 people in a rural town near the northern oil hub of Kirkuk.

Further eroding political support for both Bush and Maliki, the US military announced that 22 soldiers and marines had lost their lives last week, in addition to two British soldiers who died in Basra.

With public discontent with the war on the rise, House speaker Nancy Pelosi was set to introduce a bill to authorize troop redeployments to start within four months and to be completed by April 1, 2008, a formula Bush has already blocked once with a presidential veto.

Senate Democrats have said they would introduce their own attempts to force Bush to accept troop withdrawal timelines, extend rest periods for troops between deployments and curtail his congressional authorization to wage war.

Senate sources said veteran Senator Robert Byrd and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will frame an amendment to a Defense Authorization bill that would sunset Bush's authorization to wage war in Iraq in October -- five years after it was granted.

Meanwhile, Senators Carl Levin and Jack Reed will propose an amendment that would require a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days of becoming law, The New York Times reported Sunday.

The influential newspaper also called for US troops to leave Iraq, saying in an editorial that Bush's plan to stabilize the country through military means is a lost cause.

"It is frighteningly clear that Mr. Bush's plan is to stay the course as long as he is president and dump the mess on his successor. Whatever his cause was, it is lost," the daily opined.

Nearly half a dozen Republican senators recently broke ranks with Bush urging him to change course in Iraq, but some stalwart Bush supporters in the US legislature have said it might be possible to simply scale back expectations, rather than pulling out of Iraq altogether.

"We need to go back and reevaluate ... establishing Jeffersonian democracy in Iraq," said Pete Hoekstra, top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on Fox News.

"We need to have this national debate about 'Do we believe that radical jihadists are a threat to US security in the long term?' And I'm not sure that we've come to a consensus on that," Hoekstra said.