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Bush: Commanders trump politicians on war strategy

  • Story Highlights
  • "Surge" has only been fully in place a few weeks, Bush says
  • McCain calls for more time for Bush strategy; criticizes Iraqi government
  • Sen. Joe Lieberman accuses Bush dissenters of bowing to opinion polls
  • GOP Sen. Lamar Alexander: Bush needs Iraq strategy with broad support
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House announced Tuesday that an upcoming progress report will result in "the beginning of a new way" in Iraq, but President Bush said military commanders, not politicians, will show the way forward.

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President Bush said Tuesday military commanders, not politicians, will lead a "new way" forward in Iraq.

Six months after announcing an increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops that became known as the "surge," Bush told a town meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday that the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, has only had the troops he requested for "a few weeks" and needs time to show results.

Bush does not plan any major changes in war strategy despite increased calls from Republican lawmakers to begin a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.

"Congress ought to wait for Gen. Petraeus to come back and give us his assessment before they make any decisions," Bush told the crowd in Cleveland. Video Watch Bush's response to rising pressures »

In a brief statement earlier there, Bush said, "Troop levels will be decided by our commanders on the ground, not by political figures in Washington, D.C."

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An interim assessment of the Iraqi government's progress on 18 specific benchmarks is expected to be presented to Congress later in the week. Since May, Washington has pressured Iraqi leaders to act on benchmarks, which are tied to U.S. aid and are aimed at quelling sectarian violence.

The report will show "some of the benchmarks have been made, some of them haven't" and will set off a debate that will result in "the beginning of a new way," White House spokesman Tony Snow told CNN's "American Morning" on Tuesday.

"What Congress will get this week is a snapshot of the beginning of the retooling of the mission in Iraq," Snow said. "Everyone says, 'We want to do it a different way.' We agree. It's just now started."

The 23-page classified report will conclude the Iraqi government is making progress on about half of the benchmarks but not on the rest, several sources familiar with the report told CNN Tuesday.

The sources said the report will emphasize signs of hope in Iraq, including accomplishments such as a drop in sectarian killings in Baghdad, the decision by tribal chiefs in Anbar province to move against al Qaeda terrorists and successful local elections.

But it will also note the Iraqi government's failure to pass major political reforms, including sharing oil revenues, power-sharing among the country's various ethnic and religious groups and letting supporters of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party return to Iraq's political life.

The report, mandated by Congress earlier this year, will be followed by a second report in September from Petraeus.

A senior Democrat said Tuesday it was obvious the Iraqi government has made no progress and the only way to propel it was to begin pulling out U.S. troops, according to the Associated Press.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid echoed that sentiment.

"The surge has been going on for six months," he told reporters. "We've lost more than 600 troops costing taxpayers more than $60 billion. The escalation has done nothing to bring the Iraqi government together. It's done absolutely nothing to lessen the violence in Iraq."

In a countermove, Bush's national security adviser Stephen Hadley and war adviser Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute went to Capitol Hill to brief Sens. Trent Lott of Mississippi, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, John McCain of Arizona, Jon Kyl of Arizona and other administration supporters, AP reported.

According to Graham, the senators were told that Bush would back them in opposing legislation by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, ordering troop withdrawals to start in 120 days, AP reported.

"If we back out of this fight and we back off into the old strategy, this old enemy, al Qaeda, will emerge anew in Iraq," Graham said. "And this government is going to be tested in many ways. Having a stronger al Qaeda is not a test they need to have."

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also planned to talk to various lawmakers on Tuesday, after abruptly canceling a trip to Latin America this week so he could help shape this week's report to Congress, AP reported.

Recently returned from a visit to Iraq, McCain took to the Senate floor Tuesday and called on lawmakers to give Bush's strategy more time. The presidential candidate said the military is "showing signs of progress" and criticized Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government for "not functioning as it must."

"We see little evidence of reconciliation and little progress toward meeting the benchmarks laid out by the president," said McCain. A U.S. withdrawal, he said, would increase "the potential for genocide, wider war, spiraling oil prices and the perception of strategic American defeat."

McCain's comments contrasted with those of other Republican senators such as Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who said Tuesday that Bush "needs a new strategy" that is supported by more Americans.

"Not just because that would be a better strategy, but because a strategy can't sustain itself unless it has more broad support in the country, in the Congress, than his current strategy does," Alexander told CNN's "American Morning."

Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana -- part of the group of Republican senators who have expressed uneasiness about Bush's Iraq policy -- are working on an amendment they intend to introduce after the president unveils his Iraq progress report.

Meanwhile, Connecticut independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman continued his longtime support of Bush's war strategy on the Senate floor Tuesday, saying that "American and Iraqi security forces are winning." The 2000 Democratic vice presidential candidate accused lawmakers of bowing to opinion polls and upcoming elections.

According to a June CNN/Research Corporation poll, 66 percent of respondents disapprove of the way Bush has handled his job, and 67 percent of respondents said they oppose the Iraq war.

The first key measure of how much the political ground has shifted could come as early as Tuesday, when senators consider an amendment from Sen. Jim Webb, D-Virginia, that would limit how often U.S. troops could be deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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Under Webb's proposal, military personnel who return from deployments would have to remain stateside for at least as long as they spent overseas before they could be sent back; for National Guard and Reserve members, the time between deployments would have to be at least three times as long as the time spent in deployment.

Sources inside and outside the White House told CNN that discussions are taking place about what the alternative U.S. policy in Iraq would be if the troop increase does not work as planned. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Ed Henry, Dana Bash, Suzanne Malveaux and Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.

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