July 12, 2007 / 5:04 PM / 10 years ago

Bush says no shift on Iraq

<p>U.S. President George W. Bush holds his first official news conference in the remodeled James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington July 12, 2007.Larry Downing</p>

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush put off changing course in Iraq for at least two months on Thursday but the U.S. House of Representatives signaled its frustration by calling for combat troops to leave by April.

An interim White House report released just before Bush spoke gave the Iraqi government a mixed review in meeting political and security goals -- providing more ammunition for war opponents demanding that Bush start ending U.S. military involvement.

In a symbolic move, the Democratic-controlled House voted 223-201 to approve legislation to bring combat troops out of Iraq by April 1, 2008.

Defying a veto threat from Bush, House Democrats hope the vote will put pressure on the Senate to attach a similar troop withdrawal timetable to a military policy bill it is debating.

Two previous efforts either died in the Senate or were vetoed by Bush.

Trying to buy time in the face of a growing revolt among fellow Republicans over his Iraq strategy, Bush urged lawmakers to withhold judgment until he receives a broader assessment in September from Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

"We'll also have a clearer picture of how the new strategy is unfolding, and be in a better position to judge where we need to make any adjustments," Bush told a news conference.

Bush conceded that "war fatigue" had set in among the American public and Congress but that it was premature to talk about bringing U.S. forces home, less than a month after all of an additional 28,000 troops had arrived as part of a new attempt to boost security.

Signaling the next report could be pivotal, Bush said he would consider "making another decision, if need be" at that time.

Holding his first news conference in nearly two months, Bush's tone was at times strident, at times beseeching, as he defended the U.S. role in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.

A USA Today/Gallup poll this week showed more than seven in 10 Americans favor withdrawing nearly all U.S. troops by April, and several surveys show Bush's approval ratings the lowest of any American president in decades.

Bush said he understood opposition to the war but he was the commander-in-chief and would rely on his generals' advice.

<p>President Bush speaks at a press conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, July 12, 2007.Jason Reed</p>

"I guess I'm like any other political figure. Everybody wants to be loved -- just sometimes the decisions you make and the consequences don't enable you to be loved," Bush said.

REPUBLICANS BREAKING RANKS

To demonstrate U.S. commitment to the Middle East, Bush said he would send Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the region in early August.

The White House report is being sent to Congress after several prominent Republicans have broken ranks with Bush on Iraq, adding momentum to Democratic-led efforts to try to force a scaling-back of troop levels more than four years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.

Slideshow (5 Images)

Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement on Thursday that the Iraqi "government is simply not providing leadership worthy of the considerable sacrifice of our forces, and this has to change immediately."

Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the White House report confirmed the Iraq war was "headed in a dangerous direction."

"The Iraqi government has not met the key political benchmarks it has set for itself and Iraqi security forces continue to lag well behind expectations," he said.

In another day of violence, a suicide bomber killed seven guests at a policeman's wedding in northern Iraq. In Baghdad, an Iraqi photographer and driver working for Reuters were killed in what police said was U.S. military action and which witnesses described as a helicopter attack.

Drafted with leading contributions from Petraeus and Crocker, the report gave the Iraqi government a satisfactory grade on eight of 18 goals set by Congress. It showed that on eight of the benchmarks, Baghdad's performance was unsatisfactory, and mixed on two others.

"The White House has spun it cautiously," said Daniel Byman, a security analyst at Georgetown University. "They're portraying it as a glass that's half full. I would say the glass is at best a quarter or a fifth full."

Braced for criticism, Bush said: "Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks. But he added: "Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism."

The interim report showed limited progress by the Iraqi government in meeting goals for political reconciliation such as passing a law to share oil revenues. It also painted a picture of Iraqi security forces still plagued by sectarianism and heavily dependent on U.S. troops to conduct operations.

Additional reporting by Andrew Gray and Thomas Ferraro in Washington and Baghdad bureau

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