The Bush administration and the U.S. military are looking for victory against a stubborn insurgency, two and a half years after the first bombs fell on Baghdad. Yet ever more members of Congress and the American public are looking for a way out.
With the death toll at 2,000, those two goals are colliding as escalating public impatience with the war is triggering demands for more progress in Iraq than the political and military forces have been able to muster.
That leaves predictions murky about when a significant U.S. withdrawal from Iraq can commence — and how much higher American casualties may rise.
President Bush has spoken only in generalities — vowing to stay the course, stay on the offense. The troops, he said, will come home when Iraqi forces become more capable.
Military commanders, meanwhile, have had varying views of the Iraqi security forces’ capabilities.
Bush and his military leaders steadfastly refuse to commit to an exit timetable, insisting that it would only provide a tempting goal for terrorists eager to wait out the Americans. But as suicide bombers blast away at coalition forces and Iraqi people, U.S. lawmakers have gotten more vocal about the need for a road map out of Iraq.
As a result, the 2,000th death, while in itself no more tragic than any other single war fatality, brings greater political reverberations for Bush.
In recent months as the death toll rose, vital segments of voters voiced increasing displeasure with Bush. According to a recent AP-Ipsos poll, Bush’s job approval rating has sunk to 39 percent, the lowest level of his presidency, while 66 percent of those polled said the country is heading in the wrong direction.
Pressure from both political parties
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have turned up the heat on administration officials and military leaders, grilling them about their specific plan for winning the war and bringing the troops home.
“We should recognize that most Americans are focused on an exit strategy in Iraq,” Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a Senate hearing. “Even if withdrawal timelines are deemed unwise because they might provide a strategic advantage to the insurgency, the American people need to more fully understand the basis upon which our troops are likely to come home.”
Lawmakers and analysts suggest that the political hurdles in Iraq are higher than the military ones. Bush, though, has touted the progress that the fledgling democracy has made — with its successful parliamentary elections in January and balloting on the constitution earlier this month.
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who recently returned from a visit to Iraq, said the key problem is that the Iraqi government still doesn’t have the capacity to run the country.
“The military leaders will tell you this battle is not going to be won by military force, it’s a political struggle like every insurgency,” said Reed. “We can buy time and create an environment, but if you don’t have the civilian experts, who can talk about reconstruction, political activity, education reform, then we’re not gong to improve people’s lives.”
Progress marked by Iraqi security forces
U.S. military commanders track the Iraqis’ progress, in part, by counting the number of Iraqi security forces that are considered trained and equipped, and eventually able to take over the fight so American forces can go home.
In October 2004, there were a few more than 107,000 trained Iraqi forces. In late September of this year, there were about 195,000, and as of Oct. 17, the total was about 206,000. Their ability to replace coalition forces, however, is a point of debate.
Gen. George Casey, top U.S. commander in Iraq, raised eyebrows in Congress recently when he said only one Iraqi army battalion was ready to go into combat without U.S. support, down from three battalions a few months ago.
U.S. commanders refuse to say when Iraqi forces will be able to take over.
Determined to finish
“We have a number of measures of merit we are using to try to determine when they will be ready to take that over,” Army Maj. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., commander of U.S. forces in Baghdad, said Friday. “We’re working very hard to turn over security to them.”
U.S. troops, he said, are determined to finish their job there.
“We grieve every one of these losses,” said Webster. “We think their service is worth the effort, and when you talk to the majority of their brothers, the young soldiers out there fighting the fight, they want us to finish this mission.”
Webster said his 3rd Infantry Division, on its second tour in Iraq, has had nearly 150 soldiers killed in action.
Public discord with the war is as much about the sales pitch as the slow progress, said Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The way the Bush administration has presented the war, he said, “is not to present the uncertainties or the sacrifices or the range of possible costs, but to try to spin almost every major event as if somehow it was a decisive turning point.”
He said people should not demand an exit timeline.
“How quickly that will take place, and to what level it will reduce the cost and size of the U.S. presence, is something that has got to be determined by actual success, not some kind of calendar,” said Cordesman.