After two days of Congressional testimony by Washington's top two officials in Iraq, prospects for a substantial withdrawal of U.S. military forces there before the end of President George W. Bush's tenure at the White House look as remote as ever.
Bush himself is expected to take to the airwaves Thursday evening to endorse the recommendations made here this week by Gen. David Petraeus, Washington's commander in Iraq, to reduce U.S. troop levels by some 30,000 -- or only about 20 percent -- by August next year.
That would leave at least 135,000 U.S. soldiers and marines in place -- roughly the same number of troops deployed to Iraq before Bush's "surge" strategy was initiated last February -- thus passing along to his successor, who will take office in January 2009, the problem of extricating the U.S. from its bloodiest and most costly overseas adventure since the Vietnam War.
Democratic leaders say such a reduction is not nearly enough, particularly in light of the inability of either Petraeus or his civilian counterpart in Baghdad, Amb. Ryan Crocker, to point to any serious progress over the past eight months in achieving the kind of national reconciliation among the warring factions in Iraq that the surge was designed to promote.
"Are we any closer to a lasting political settlement in Iraq...today than we were when the surge began eight months ago, and if we continue to surge for another six months, the Sunnis, the Shias and the Kurds will stop killing each other and start governing together?" asked Sen. Joseph Biden, who chaired Tuesday's Foreign Relations Committee hearings at which Crocker and Petraeus testified. "The answer to both those questions is 'no'."
Some Republicans appeared to agree, including two of the war's most steadfast backers -- Rep. James Walsh and Sen. Elizabeth Dole -- who said they had changed their minds.
"The continued failure of the (Nouri al-) Maliki government to achieve reconciliation, and the fact that current U.S. force levels are not sustainable beyond next spring, compels me to support what some have called 'action-forcing measures'," Dole said, suggesting that she would support Democratic efforts to at least change the current mission of U.S. forces from counter-insurgency to intensified training of Iraqi forces.
But even with the two most recent defectors' support, Democrats are still unlikely to come within hailing distance of the two-thirds majority they need to overcome a veto by Bush of any legislation that would force him to change the military mission in Iraq, let alone withdraw more troops more quickly.
"Unless we get 67 votes to override a veto, there is nothing we can do to end this war," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Joseph Biden. At this point, most analysts believe that the 50 Senate Democrats will be fortunate to muster the more than 60 votes they need to cut off a Republican filibuster on any war-ending or mission-changing legislation they introduce.
While breaching the 60-vote threshold in the Senate would be seen as a serious political blow to Bush, most analysts believe that the president is not prepared to compromise and still believes that Washington can prevail in Iraq. This attitude was expressed most directly, if crassly, by him during a conversation with a senior Australian officials at last week's Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney last week.
"We're kicking ass in Iraq," he reportedly told Deputy Premier Mark Vaile.
Petraeus was indeed able to cite statistics that showed a substantial decline in sectarian violence in Baghdad -- the surge's main tactical goal -- if not the rest of Iraq. However, both he and Crocker conceded that progress on the political front -- that is, national reconciliation, the surge's overall strategic objective -- was negligible, at best.
Petraeus also admitted that the one clear achievement of the past seven months, the eviction of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) by Sunni tribal militias in much of al Anbar province, had taken place spontaneously and was unrelated to the surge, although he stressed that U.S. military forces were actively recruiting and supporting Sunni militias elsewhere in hopes of replicating the relative pacification of Anbar in other Sunni-dominated regions.
He and Crocker, as well as other administration officials and supporters, depicted developments in Anbar as part of a "bottoms-up strategy" for national reconciliation by which former Sunni insurgents had become de facto allies of U.S. forces and even the Shia-dominated Maliki government against AQI.
But that notion has been questioned by a number of lawmakers and independent analysts who have argued that, while the militias now consider AQI the greater enemy, they may very well end up turning their guns on the government and on U.S. forces that support it.
"If (the bottoms-up strategy) is not successful in bringing all forces into some kind of reconciliation, it will simply provide the fuel for a much more violent civil war," said James Dobbins, director of the International Security and Defence Policy Center of the Rand Corporation, who served as Washington's Special Envoy to Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, Somalia, and Afghanistan after civil conflicts in those countries.
In his testimony, Petraeus recommended that Washington withdraw 2,000 marines by the end of this month and another 4,000 soldiers before the end of the year. Some 24,000 more troops would be gradually withdrawn over the first seven months of 2008, according to Petraeus' plan, which also called for Congress to review the situation again next March.
But critics pointed out that under the military's current regulations -- whereby tours of duty in combat zones are limited to 15 months -- 30,000 troops would have to be withdrawn from Iraq by late next spring in any event and that the early withdrawal of 6,000 troops appeared designed to earn the goodwill, and continued loyalty, of increasingly uneasy Republicans.
"It seems to me that this is throwing a sop to a very influential Republican," said ret. Gen. Robert Gard. He noted that Sen. John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who has become increasingly outspoken about his doubts about the surge and U.S. strategy, had called earlier this month for Bush to bring home a brigade before Christmas.
"It's a political move," said Jon Alterman, director of Middle East programmes at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, of the plan. "It may be enough to buy the president enough time and get the appropriations he seeks to (continue) fund(ing) the war."
The administration is pressing Congress to approve 200 billion dollars to finance military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in fiscal year 2008, which begins Oct. 1.
Still, Democrats are working with as many as a dozen worried Republicans on drafting legislation that would make it much harder for Bush to "stay the course" through the end of his term.
© 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service