White House claims surge in Iraq support

President George W. Bush is gaining support among both wavering Republicans and anti-war Democrats for his embattled Iraq strategy, a top White House aide said Sunday.

Speaking as Congress awaits a pivotal report on the progress of Bush’s “surge” of nearly 30,000 more troops, new White House counselor Ed Gillespie said the deployment was curbing Iraq’s rampant bloodshed.

During August, he told Fox News, the surge “has had the intended effect of helping to secure the population, and that is now translating into the goal of allowing for progress to be made on the political front in Iraq as well.”

“And so I think that we hear from members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who have been over to Iraq during this August break who have come back and have seen this progress and have told their constituents about it.”

US lawmakers will return from their summer break for a week of hearings and political theater to set the stage for Bush’s critical progress report on the Iraq war, due by September 15.

In the week of September 9, war commander General David Petraeus and US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker will deliver their verdicts on the surge effort, in one of the most significant appearances in Congress for years.

This week, three hearings in Congress will examine a report by the Government Accountability Office, which reportedly says the Iraqi government has fallen woefully short of benchmarks for progress set by US lawmakers.

At stake is the fate of Bush’s last-ditch strategy, announced in January, to deploy an extra 28,500 troops into Iraq, after a highly unpopular four-year war that has killed more than 3,700 US troops and tens of thousands of civilians.

The president wants to maintain the surge into early next year, but Democrats are set to try again to force him to bring most combat forces home by May. They insist that Iraqi authorities have failed to hold up their end of the bargain.

“The purpose of this surge was to give breathing room to acquire some political reconciliation. There is no political reconciliation,” Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, a 2008 White House contender, told CBS.

“It doesn’t matter how many troops we put there. Unless you have a political settlement, when we leave we’re going to leave chaos behind. You’ll find you have a regional war,” he said.

The White House has taken heart from a UPI/Zogby poll last week that said 54 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war is not lost. But the poll also found that 49 percent of respondents said the surge strategy was not working.

Gillespie said the mood of some dissident Republicans would be clearer this week when Congress reconvenes.

“But my sense is that people agree that it would be premature to impose an artificial time line for withdrawal on our troops at a time when we are seeing progress being made,” the White House counselor said.

“And a policy of premature, precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would be the wrong policy and would have very dangerous consequences for the American people here at home,” he said.

Late last month, influential Republican Senator John Warner broke ranks with the White House and called for Bush to pull some troops out of Iraq by Christmas, to pressure the Iraqi government into taking more responsibility.

Speaking on CNN Sunday, fellow Republican Senator Richard Shelby said Warner’s call was “on the right track” but that “General Petraeus is the one to deliver that message.”

“My own personal belief is that we will be withdrawing some troops,” said Shelby, who had a close call on a visit to Baghdad last week when the C-130 plane his congressional delegation was travelling in came under rocket fire.

Shelby said that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki “didn’t seem to have time to meet with” his delegation — which included two other Republican senators and a Democratic representative.

“And I thought that was a bad sign in itself,” he said, joining other US lawmakers who have been pressuring Maliki in recent weeks.

“We should send the strongest message in the world to the Iraqi government that if you are not going to do something, we’re going to leave.”