A fresh showdown over an old issue

The US Congress on Thursday was to launch a fresh attempt to wrest control of the Iraq war from President George W. Bush while the White House was to report mixed progress in the conflict.

The House of Representatives was to debate and likely vote on a bill demanding the withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq by April 1 next year, while the Senate plowed through its own emotional debate over the war.

As it struggled to contain a Republican rebellion over Iraq, President George W. Bush’s administration prepared to deliver a key interim report on its war strategy to Congress.

The report, which could be released Thursday, will declare “satisfactory” progress on only half the goals set out by lawmakers, while acknowledging political reconciliation has not been achieved, newspapers reported.

The report says most progress has been achieved on the security front, including a decline in civilian casualties from sectarian violence, the New York Times said, citing unnamed administration officials.

The White House report describes positive movement on eight of the 18 goals, a lack of progress on eight others and mixed results for two benchmarks, the Washington Post wrote.

But the report will “not conclude, as it has been characterized, that this is a colossal failure,” an administration official told the Times.

The progress report has taken on added political weight as several members of Bush’s Republican party have broken with him over the war.

While Bush was expected to cite the report as evidence his troop “surge” strategy needed to be given more time, US intelligence officials gave a much more bleak assessment of Iraq in testimony before Congress.

Thomas Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence, told a congressional committee on Wednesday “even if violence is diminished, given the current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene, Iraqi leaders will be hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation.”

Bush suffered more damage on Wednesday when another Republican senator declared she would back a Democratic bid to enforce troops withdrawals by next year.

Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine said the United States had arrived at a “crossroads of hope and reality” on the war, which has killed 3,601 US troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis, and it was time to embrace “reality.”

The White House, under withering political fire, admitted unhappiness over the war had become the ‘central fact’ of US politics, but brushed off demands to reverse Bush’s surge of 30,000 extra troops into Iraq.

“There’s a lot of skepticism among Republicans. As I told you, they’re getting an earful from constituents,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said.

National Security adviser Stephen Hadley meanwhile held meetings with worried Republicans on Capitol Hill.

The House was expected to debate all day, before voting on a measure which would require most combat troops to be out of Iraq by April 1, 2008.

The redeployment would begin within 120 days and the president would be forced to report to Congress on why soldiers should stay in Iraq for limited purposes such as fighting terrorism or training Iraqi forces.

A similar bill is also being debated in the Senate, but both approaches mirror earlier Democratic attempts to end the war which Bush vetoed.

Although Republican discontent is growing over Iraq, it is not clear if the Democrats have drawn enough ex-Bush allies to jump over the 60-vote hurdle in the 100-seat Senate needed to defeat delaying tactics by Republican leaders.

Bush’s remaining supporters in the Senate succeeded in defeating a Democratic bid to grant US troops the same amount of time to recuperate back at base as they spend in combat in Iraq.

The measure would have effectively limited the number of soldiers available for deployment to Iraq and therefore limited troop numbers.

“Republicans today proved they are more committed to protecting the president rather than protecting our troops,” said an angry Senate Majority leader Harry Reid.