Nearing what are likely to be his last big decisions on U.S. troops and strategy in Iraq, President Bush seems to have fewer choices than when his war council last came to town.
Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker are expected to offer something for everyone when they testify to Congress beginning Tuesday, including the three senators competing to replace Bush in the White House. But any bright spot in their assessment of Iraq will be viewed through the prism of recent headlines.
Fresh violence has taken the gleam off Bush's military strategy, and political score-settling among Iraqi leaders shows they still can't or won't meet U.S. expectations.
"We've thrown out all of the rose-colored glasses in how we look at Iraq," White House spokesman Tony Fratto said Monday.
The Democrats aren't so sure of that, and the mounting American death toll will almost surely lead them to new demands this week for Bush to bring troops home more quickly. While Bush is just as sure to reject that idea, the mixed picture Petraeus and Crocker paint will leave the president without a sure path ahead.
"If there is any clear message that emerges out of the events of the last few weeks, it is that the risks in Iraq remain high enough so that no one can yet say whether the odds of any kind of U.S. success are better than even," Anthony Cordesman, a security analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Monday. "The fact remains, however, that there is still a marginally better case for staying than for leaving."
Last briefing was in September
Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker last briefed Congress in September, when Bush's program of increased troops and a security crackdown in Baghdad seemed to be bearing fruit, and the strategic choice of some Sunni tribes to ally with U.S. and Iraqi government forces had improved the outlook for eventual national political reconciliation.
The picture is much more complex now, with the fate of a Shiite cease-fire in doubt, new fractures among the Shiite majority and its militias and political unrest among frustrated Sunnis.
Violence declined significantly last year, as Bush's additional troops launched more operations, some Sunni insurgents rejected al-Qaida and allied themselves with the U.S., and anti-American Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militants into a cease-fire.
Petraeus has warned all along that the good news could turn bad, and he's being proved right this spring.
On Monday, as Petraeus and Crocker prepared for two days of questioning, U.S. and Iraqi forces took on fighters loyal to al-Sadr. A U.S. soldier was killed by small-arms fire after a roadside bombing in Baghdad, the military said, pushing the two-day American death toll to at least eight.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq says it has now trained roughly 425,000 Iraqi military and security forces, but the Iraqis can't do much without U.S. help.
A sobering test of their abilities took place in recent weeks when an Iraqi-planned offensive in Basra failed in its stated goal of routing warring Shiite militants from the southern city. Some of the Iraqi forces refused to fight or deserted their posts.
The operation was also a test of the political muscle of the U.S.-backed Shiite leaders, whose commitment to share power, deal with corrupt ministries and make other reforms gets skeptical reviews from congressional Republicans and Democrats alike.
"What we're all seeing is that the Iraqi political leadership is trying to take hold of the security for their country. They took a very bold, aggressive action in Basra. It wasn't, you know, an overall success, but we learned a lot," Fratto told reporters.
After Petraeus and Crocker made their presentations last fall, Bush announced a limited drawdown of about 21,500 troops by this summer. His plan calls for combat forces to remain around the level they were before the 2007 buildup through this summer. The administration said then that some forces would stay in Iraq well past 2008.
Bush plans to cap this Petraeus-Crocker update with another announcement, and all signs point to more of the same. Petraeus has already made it known that he wants to halt the drawdown this summer for a "period of assessment."
The administration also plans to announce that U.S. soldiers' combat tours will be reduced from 15 months to 12 months in Iraq and Afghanistan beginning later this summer.
A senior administration official told The Associated Press last Friday that plans are to deploy soldiers for 12 months, then give them 12 months rest time at home.
The Democrat who will welcome Petraeus and Crocker to Capitol Hill on Tuesday says Bush's troop buildup has been a failure.
Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the military push failed to deliver what it promised and Bush's "plan is to muddle through, and hand the problem off to his successor."
"The purpose of the surge was to bring violence in Iraq down so that its leaders could come together politically," said Biden, D-Del., in Saturday's Democratic radio address. "Violence has come down, but the Iraqis have not come together."