U.S. tries to temper expectations on Iraq progress

WASHINGTON Wed Jun 13, 2007 6:25pm EDT

An Iraqi girl looks on as U.S. soldiers check weapons at the house of a local leader in a village near north Baghdad June 13, 2007. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

An Iraqi girl looks on as U.S. soldiers check weapons at the house of a local leader in a village near north Baghdad June 13, 2007.

Credit: Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A September progress report on the U.S. troop increase in Iraq that President George W. Bush called an important moment for his war strategy is unlikely to be a "pivotal" assessment, officials now say.

Amid unrelenting bloodshed in Iraq and scant signs of progress by the Iraqi government in meeting political benchmarks, the White House sought to temper expectations of rapid strides resulting from a security crackdown begun at the start of this year.

"I have warned from the very beginning about expecting some sort of magical thing to happen in September," White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters on Wednesday.

"What I would suggest is, rather than it's, sort of, a pivotal moment, it is the first opportunity to be able to take a look at what happens when you've got (the troop increase) up and running fully for a period of months," he added. "It is naive to think, suddenly -- boom -- you snap a finger and you've got an instant change in the situation."

Bush, in an interview with Reuters last month, said September would be an "important moment" to assess the extent of progress under the troop buildup he ordered in January.

"I see it as an important moment, because (Gen.) David Petraeus (the top U.S. commander in Iraq) says that's when he'll have a pretty good assessment as to what the effects of the surge has been," he said.

September is also an important time period on the U.S. political calendar, as the already intense campaign for presidency moves closer to the November 2008 election.

Democrats, who hold a majority in the U.S. Congress, tried to force Bush to accept a troop withdrawal as a condition of providing funds for the Iraq war.

Although they have given Bush war funding through September without such conditions, they have vowed to continue to seek a deadline for the U.S. presence in Iraq.

Some Republicans have told Bush they expect progress in Iraq by autumn and have hinted that if the situation does not improve, they might reconsider their support for his strategy.

While Snow's comments appeared to show a change in the White House tone compared to a few weeks ago, they echoed those of some U.S. military officials recently.

Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, has said September might be a little too soon for a "true assessment" of how well the troop buildup is working.

May saw a heavy death toll among U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians. It was the third-worst month for U.S. military deaths, which totaled 122. Nearly 2,000 civilians were killed in Iraq last month, according to Iraqi estimates.

On Wednesday, fresh violence was feared after suspected al Qaeda militants blew up two minarets at the revered Golden Mosque, one of four major Shi'ite shrines in Iraq. A bombing of the same shrine in the Iraqi city of Samarra last year unleashed a wave of sectarian killing.

U.S. officials said they hoped a similar wave of retaliatory attacks could be avoided this time.

Petraeus told ABC in an interview that the Samarra attack was a "serious blow" to the military effort, but added that he hoped with it would galvanize Iraqi leaders to work together against extremism.

Snow said, "I think people are acutely aware of what the dangers may be and therefore are moving swiftly to address it as rapidly as possible."

Seeking to keep up the pressure on the administration, Democratic leaders sent Bush a letter urging him to shift gears immediately, saying the troop increase had "failed to produce the intended results."

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