WASHINGTON A September report on the U.S. troop build-up in Iraq is expected to show a mixed picture of military progress but shortcomings on political reconciliation, triggering a new debate over whether a pullout is warranted.
The report due by September 15 from the commanding U.S. general in Iraq, David Petraeus, is widely anticipated as a make-or-break assessment of the impact of President George W. Bush's decision early this year to send thousands more troops into Baghdad and Anbar province to try to bring stability.
With the unpopular war an issue on the U.S. presidential campaign trail and civilian deaths mounting in Iraq, Democrats are likely to use the report as ammunition for their argument it is time to set the United States on a path to reduce its presence in Iraq.
"It's expected to highlight the fact that the situation in Iraq has not improved and that we need a change in strategy," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Some Republicans nervous about the November 2008 election are likely to raise hard questions about how long the strategy can be maintained given public disapproval of the war.
Senior administration officials familiar with the early work on the report said Petraeus and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, will describe a mixed picture.
There has been more success than expected on the U.S. military's strategy of clearing Baghdad neighborhoods of insurgents and holding them, they said. And perennially restive Anbar province has calmed down as well, they added.
But less progress has been made in coaxing political reconciliation from the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. An oil-revenue sharing law and other key benchmarks remain elusive.
"The good news in Iraq is military -- we're winning. The bad is the Maliki government is not functioning effectively," said Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a presidential candidate. "It's some bad news but it doesn't destroy what is happening on the ground."
But a Democratic candidate, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, said "we've made almost no progress" on reconciliation in Iraq. He said during a campaign trip in Iowa that it was time to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops to "send a clear signal to the Iraqi factions that we're not going to be there forever."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Petraeus and Crocker will testify publicly and privately to the U.S. Congress just prior to the release of their report, which will actually be written by White House officials.
Crocker told Reuters in a Baghdad interview that pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq could open the door to a "major Iranian advance" that would threaten U.S. interests in the region.
SMALLER PRESENCE IN A YEAR
Petraeus told reporters in Iraq on Wednesday he was preparing recommendations on troop levels with an eye toward having a smaller presence in Iraq in a year or so.
Americans are skeptical. A CNN/Research Corporation Poll said only 43 percent of Americans trusted Petraeus to report what is really going on in Iraq. It said 72 percent would not change their view on the war regardless of what Petraeus says.
In Washington, battle lines are already being drawn.
Vice President Dick Cheney said earlier this month that it is still tough going in Iraq but that "tremendous changes have taken place."
"And this is no time to lose heart and make a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, as some in Congress are demanding," he said.
Former Rep. Lee Hamilton, who co-chaired a commission that offered recommendations on how to proceed in Iraq, said in an interview he expected Petraeus to recommend the troop build-up continue into next spring.
He said administration claims of progress have been tempered by a suicide bomb attack in Kahtaniya in northwestern Iraq on Wednesday that killed hundreds of people.
"It's pretty hard to accept the idea of progress if you're killing 250 people with one blast," he said.
But he said Democrats do not have the votes to force Bush to change strategy and that Bush "is in a very commanding position."
(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles)