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Biden urges new course in Iraq

Presidential hopeful cites 'credibility chasm'

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Two days after confirming his intention to explore a presidential run, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden warned Tuesday that a "credibility chasm" is undermining U.S. chances for success in the Iraq war.

Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged President Bush to make major course changes in Iraq before Americans turn their backs on the conflict.

"The disconnect between the administration's rhetoric and the reality on the ground has opened not just a credibility gap, but a credibility chasm," the Democrat said in a speech at the Brookings Institution think tank.

"Standing right in the middle of that chasm are 139,000 American troops, some of them ... on their third tour."

Biden hit the Bush administration for "a long litany of rosy assessments, misleading statements [and] premature declarations of victory."

"The disconnect, I believe, is fueling cynicism that is undermining the single most important weapon we need to give our troops to be able to do their job, and that is the unyielding support of the American people," he said.

Recent polls have shown declining public support for the U.S. policy in Iraq. (Full story)

To try to turn that around, Biden called on Bush to work with Congress to set "clear benchmarks and goals" for progress there, with the administration then reporting each month on the advance toward those objectives.

"I'd expect the administration to detail what they think they've achieved, where they think they've fallen short, why they've fallen short and what help they need to, in fact, gain the initiative," Biden said.

"This combination of benchmarks and regular public accountability would go a long way toward convincing the American people that they are getting the facts in Iraq and that we have a strategy for success."

On Sunday, Biden said he intends to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, although his decision on whether to run will depend on his ability to raise enough campaign money.

However, the senator, who supported the resolution authorizing Bush to take military action against Iraq, began his speech Tuesday by trying to downplay any political dimensions behind his critique.

"George Bush is our president. We have one president at at time. He is the president, and no one is running against George Bush," Biden said.

Later, he added that he still believes "the president will do what he thinks is in the best interest of the country."

"I think when he examines the facts, when he examines what's actually happening by talking to these folks, I believe he'll be prepared to change, to alter, to augment his policy."

The senator also said he did not support calls for either a pullout of U.S. forces or setting a date for a pullout, both of which he said would be mistakes likely to make the situation in Iraq worse.

A bipartisan quartet of House members introduced a resolution last week that would call on Bush to present a plan for the withdrawal of the nearly 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq by 2006. The administration has said any such timetable would only encourage the insurgents. (Full story)

Sectarian divisions cited

Biden, who recently returned from his fifth trip to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, said the security situation in the country is more tenuous than when he first arrived.

The insurgency has not diminished, more foreign jihadists are pouring over the border and there are not nearly enough Iraqi forces sufficiently trained to take the place of U.S. troops, he said.

He also said there is evidence that sectarian divisions between Iraq's various religious and ethnic groups are growing "and that the prospects of a civil war are increasing -- not predicted, but increasing."

Biden also said the reconstruction program in Iraq has been "a disaster."

Of $18.4 billion earmarked by Congress in the fall of 2003 for rebuilding the country, only $3.5 billion has been spent on actual reconstruction projects, and more than 25 percent of that total had to be spent providing security for the rebuilding efforts, he said.

"We have repeatedly missed the deadlines for increasing power [and] oil production," Biden said. "As temperatures approach 120 degrees in the third summer since Saddam's statue came down, Iraqis still have only about eight hours a day of electricity and almost half do not have regular access to clean water."

To turn things around in Iraq, Biden called on Bush to accept offers from other countries to train Iraqi security forces outside the country and to deploy 3,500 NATO troops along the Syrian border to stop the influx of insurgents.

He also said Iraqi tribal leaders should be given the resources for rebuilding projects in their own communities, which would put unemployed Iraqis to work.

The senator also called on Bush to create an international "contact group" that could "help generate assistance, provide political advice [to the Iraqi government] and discourage destabilizing actions by countries such as Iran and Syria in the region."

"We also must urge other countries to make good on more than $13 billion in [reconstruction] pledges they made in October of 2003," he said. "Thus far, only $3 billion has actually been delivered."

Bush said Monday the United States is "making progress" toward its goals in the war in Iraq.

"The report from the field is that, while it's tough, more and more Iraqis are becoming battle-hardened and trained to defend themselves," Bush told reporters at an appearance with European Union leaders at the White House.

"That's exactly the strategy that's going to work -- and it is going to work. And we will complete this mission for the sake of world peace."

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