WASHINGTON -- With support for his Iraq policy eroding on multiple fronts, President Bush dug in his heels yesterday and urged Congress to give his troop increase more time to work. He said force levels in Iraq would be decided by military commanders, not Washington politicians.
Democrats were dismissive, calling Bush's comments a delaying tactic. The Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, said the troop escalation has been under way for six months and "is not working."
The war of words came as a new national poll showed opposition to the U.S. presence in Iraq at an all-time high. A growing number of Republican officials have begun moving away from Bush over the war, and the Senate is again debating measures designed to force a drawdown of U.S. troops.
Bush, at a campaign-style stop in Ohio, said the escalation had "just started," since the last of 22,500 reinforcements he announced Jan. 10 arrived only weeks ago. He said Congress should give the commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, "a chance to fully implement his operations" and wait for his progress report in September.
The new troops "just showed up and they're now beginning operations in full, and in Washington you got people saying stop," said Bush, whose remarks about the war drew silence from an otherwise enthusiastic Cleveland audience.
Bolstering his plea for more time was a Gallup/USA Today poll released yesterday that indicated that most Americans want Congress to wait until September to develop a new Iraq policy. However, the poll found that respondents, by a margin of 71 percent to 26 percent, favor a pullout of nearly all U.S. troops by April.
Even some Republicans said Bush's plan in Iraq has run out of time. Several who broke with the president recently over the "surge" strategy said in television interviews yesterday that he should change course immediately.
"There's no reason to wait," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici. The New Mexico Republican, who spoke with Bush this week, said he was "trying to tell him that he must change his ways because there is nothing positive happening." Iraq's military is not "living up to their commitments, which means we're doing all the lifting, all the work."
In advance of an interim White House report on Iraq, to be released this week, Bush acknowledged that "the Iraqis have got to do more work." The report by Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker is expected to conclude that Iraq's government has failed to meet any of the benchmarks for progress that Bush demanded in January.
"The president needs a new strategy," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican. "A strategy can't sustain itself unless it has more broad support in the country and in the Congress than his current strategy does."
Alexander is among the senators from both parties who are demanding that Bush adopt recommendations made last year by the Iraq Study Group, which urged more intensive diplomacy and a reduced U.S. combat mission.
Supporters of the administration's Iraq policy, led by Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, echoed Bush's call for patience and warned that a "premature withdrawal" would lead to more chaos and death in the region.
McCain, whose presidential candidacy appears to be collapsing, in part because of his outspoken support for an unpopular war, said: "There is progress being made, [but] we're a long way from succeeding." He predicted that the report in September would be "mixed. Some success and some frustrations."
Graham, just back from a trip to Iraq with McCain, described the Baghdad government as dysfunctional, adding: "I am in many ways more depressed than I've ever been about political reconciliation in the short term."
But Graham said alternatives being pushed by Democrats and some Republicans in Congress, which call for a diminished U.S. combat role, amount to little more than a return to the Bush administration's old, failed strategy of basing American troops away from populated areas, which would allow al-Qaida to "emerge anew in Iraq."
In Ohio, Bush spoke in broad terms about a new strategy, saying he'd be "glad to discuss different options," based on what military commanders tell him. The White House and the Congress "can work together on a way forward" after Petraeus reports in September, he said.
The president warned of the threat posed by al-Qaida in Iraq, describing it repeatedly as part of the organization behind the Sept. 11 attacks, a linkage that anti-terrorism experts say is inaccurate and misleading.
"I believe we can be in a different position in a while, and that would be to have enough troops there to guard the territorial integrity of that country, enough troops there to make sure that al-Qaida doesn't gain safe haven from which to be able to launch further attacks against the United States," Bush said.