WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a double setback for U.S. President George W. Bush, an intelligence report cast doubt on Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s leadership and an influential senator in Bush’s Republican Party urged him on Thursday to begin a troop pullout.
Virginia Sen. John Warner said Maliki had “let our troops down” by failing to take steps toward political reconciliation that would help stabilize Iraq. He said Bush should announce next month an initial withdrawal of U.S. troops as a way to spur the Iraqi government into action.
“We simply cannot, as a nation, stand and put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action which will get everybody’s attention,” Warner told reporters following a visit to Iraq.
U.S. political leaders have assailed Maliki’s ability to govern Iraq. The unpopular war has featured prominently in the campaign for the November 2008 presidential election, with Democrats and some Republicans urging a U.S. troop withdrawal.
Warner, a senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee who has pushed Bush to change his Iraq policy, suggested a withdrawal of “say 5,000” troops who could be home by Christmas. About 160,000 U.S. troops are now in Iraq.
Bush should announce the step on September 15 in conjunction with a progress report on Iraq requested by Congress, Warner said. The evaluation by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and the top U.S. commander there, Gen. David Petraeus, is widely seen as the potential trigger for a change in U.S. policy in Iraq.
Bush just this week launched a new plea for patience and the White House responded to Warner’s call by saying it still wanted to wait for the September assessment.
Warner spoke shortly after U.S. intelligence agencies cast doubt on Maliki’s ability to heal sectarian divides, one of the benchmarks the United States uses to measure progress in Iraq.
Declassified findings of the National Intelligence Estimate said there had been “measurable but uneven improvements” in Iraqi security since January, under a U.S. troop increase ordered by Bush this year.
It said, however, that “levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high” and “the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next 6-12 months.”
The intelligence estimate forecast increased criticism from within the Shi’ite Muslim majority’s main coalition, as well as from Sunni Muslim and Kurdish parties.
“Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments,” the report said.
Warner said the United States needed “to show that we mean business” when it says its commitment to Iraq is not open-ended.
He said he would not go as far as Democratic Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, who called for Maliki to be replaced.
Warner’s call and the report came a day after Bush sought to correct impressions his support for Maliki was wavering. Bush had hailed Maliki as “the right guy for Iraq” when the two stood side by side last November in Jordan, but doubts within the Bush administration have been growing.
Bush on Tuesday voiced frustrations with the Iraqi leadership but on Wednesday called Maliki “a good man with a difficult job.”
Maliki bristled at the criticism, saying no one outside Iraq had a right to set timetables for progress.
The intelligence estimate said a change in the mission of U.S. troops from fighting insurgents, as some war critics in Congress have advocated, would erode recent security gains.
Senior U.S. intelligence officials told reporters in Washington there was hope reconciliation beginning to take place at the local level in Iraq could lead to broader national unity, but it was too early to know.