Bush signals no shift in Iraq policy


Washington : US President George W. Bush has not announced a shift in his policy in Iraq despite recent reports suggesting he was ready to begin discussion on when American soldiers might be able to come home.

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Bush, refusing to give in to mounting political pressure, Tuesday stood by his approach despite the recent defection of several key Republican senators who had said the White House strategy was failing.

"If we recoil and leave the region with precipitous withdrawals or withdrawals not based upon conditions on the ground, it's going to get worse, not better," Bush said.

US newspapers had reported over the last two days that the growing number of Republicans abandoning Bush on Iraq had persuaded the White House to begin discussions on when and how to begin talking publicly about force reductions in Iraq.

Despite speculation that he would do so during a speech in Cleveland, Ohio, Bush stuck to his position that Congress needed to give his troop build-up plan more time to work and said he would not draw any final conclusions about his strategy until mid-September.

The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus and the ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, are due to submit a congressionally mandated report by Sep 15 outlining the effectiveness of the troop increase ordered by Bush in January.

"I call upon the US Congress to give General David Petraeus a chance to come back and tell us whether his strategy is working, and then we can work together on a way forward," Bush said, adding that he was open to "different options".

Meanwhile, the political debate on Iraq was again heating up as the Senate took up a defence bill that included spending on the conflict in Iraq. And the Bush administration is required to provide a report by Sunday on whether the Iraqi government has met benchmarks established by Congress last May.

Those milestones include political reconciliation to ease sectarian tension and the passage of an oil revenue sharing law for Iraq's ethnic and religious groups.

The White House lowered expectations by saying Tuesday that there will be shortcomings in the report.

Democratic Senators moved again Tuesday to force Bush's hand on Iraq. Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, announced that he would attach a clause to a defence policy and spending bill requiring that a gradual withdrawal of US forces would begin within 120 days of enactment.

Levin's proposal would have US troops limit their mission to protecting US installations and personnel, training and equipping Iraqi security forces and participate in specific counter-terrorism operations. The combat role would end by April 2008.

"The open-ended occupation of a Muslim country by the West has played right into the hands of Al-Qaeda, and we need to bring it to a responsible end," Levin said.

Bush ordered more than 20,000 extra troops to Iraq six months ago to quell spiralling sectarian killings, raising the US military presence to about 160,000.

Republican Senator John McCain, a presidential candidate who just returned from a trip to Iraq and strongly supported the troop surge, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that the effort was working and that any early pullout could lead to a bloodier conflict.

"This strategy is the correct one," McCain said. "Now that the military effort in Iraq has shown some signs of progress, the space is opening for political progress."