Video links added: Helen Thomas and David Gregory exchanges, plus Libby talk here.
President Bush will hold a press conference at 10:30am to try and stave off the Immediate Withdrawal Mob. The Initial Benchmark Assessment Report on Iraq is now posted at the White House website. Here’s the report’s bottom line summary of the security situation:
The security situation in Iraq remains complex and extremely challenging. Iraqi and Coalition Forces continue to emphasize population security operations in Baghdad, its environs, and Anbar province to combat extremist networks, and create the space for political reconciliation and economic growth. As a result of increased offensive operations, Coalition and Iraqi Forces have sustained increased attacks in Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, Diyala, and Salah ad Din. Tough fighting should be expected through the summer as Coalition and Iraqi Forces seek to seize the initiative from early gains and shape conditions for longer-term stabilization. These combined operations ‑‑ named Operation Phantom Thunder ‑‑ were launched on June 15, 2007, after the total complement of surge forces arrived in Iraq. The full surge in this respect has only just begun.
These new operations are targeting primarily al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) havens in Baghdad, Babil, Diyala, and Anbar provinces. While AQI may not account for most of the violence in Iraq, it is the organization responsible for the highest profile attacks, which serve as a primary accelerant to the underlying sectarian conflict. We presently assess that degrading AQI networks in these critical areas ‑‑ together with efforts to degrade Iranian-backed Shi’a extremist networks ‑‑ is a core U.S. national security interest and essential for Iraq’s longer-term stability. Since January of this year, AQI has proven its resiliency and ability to conduct high-profile, mass-casualty attacks, mostly targeting Shi’a population centers through suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (SVBIEDs) attacks. The number of suicide and SVBIED attacks in March and April approached all-time highs, further exacerbating sectarian tension and making political deals more difficult to close. These incidents have shown a decrease in May and June, which may be the result of aggressive Coalition and Iraqi operations into former AQI havens. The surge of additional U.S. forces into these areas allows us to better combat AQI and other terrorists. We should expect, however, that AQI will attempt to increase its tempo of attacks as September approaches ‑‑ in an effort to influence U.S. domestic opinion about sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq.
In Baghdad, an overall decrease in sectarian violence is due in part to intensified Iraqi and Coalition operations focused on population security. An apparent decision earlier this year by the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia to largely stand down its operations appeared to have a temporary effect, but a breakdown in Muqtada al Sadr’s ability to control JAM ‑‑ or elements thereof ‑‑ coinciding with the return of JAM fighters from Iran after receiving training in combat and explosives has spawned a recent increase in attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces. Iran continues to train, fund, and equip extremist groups, both Shi’a and Sunni, that attack Iraqi and Coalition forces in and around Baghdad and the provinces in southern Iraq. JAM “secret cells” are a major recipient of that assistance ‑‑ and are responsible for some of the most sophisticated attacks on Iraqi and Coalition Forces. As stated in the President’s January 10, 2007, speech announcing the New Way Forward: “We will interrupt the flow of support from Iran. And we will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Operations against these networks are ongoing and will continue.
In Anbar province, the local population is turning against AQI and seeking support from the Coalition. At the same time, U.S. military operations and cooperation with local tribal leaders have created openings for local political compromise and more effective civilian assistance. To reinforce these early signs of success, the President ordered additional U.S. military and civilian resources to Anbar. The trends have remained positive. The provincial government ‑‑ for the first time in a year ‑‑ is now able to meet in the province and recently approved a comprehensive provincial budget that appropriates virtually all of its $107 million allocation for capital expenditures. Attack levels have reached a 2‑year low and some families that had fled Anbar are beginning to return. These developments have been noted in other primarily Sunni areas of Iraq, such as Salah ad-Din province, and areas around Baquba, in Diyala province, where efforts are underway to build on the Anbar experience.
The ISF continues to show slow progress. ISF capability is increasing, but further ISF proficiency, improved logistics, and expanded forces are needed in order to assume more responsibility from Coalition Forces. Comprehensive data and statistics on the ISF — including its projected growth — can be found in the report Measuring Stability and Security in Iraq, submitted quarterly to Congress by the Department of Defense, pursuant to Section 9010 of the Department of Defense Appropriations Act, 2007 (Public Law 109-289). It should be noted that Iraqi Security Forces bear the brunt of attacks from insurgents and terrorists. Despite casualty rates two to three times that of Coalition Forces, Iraqi Security Forces continue to fight bravely for their country.
The assessment gave grades of satisfactory progress on eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight and mixed results on the other two.
Republicans are warring with each other over the war. John Boehner calls GOP critics “wimps.” GOP Rep. Heather Wilson calls them “thoughtful.”
Beyond the food fight, this WSJ editorial today does a good job dismantling the handy “benchmark excuse” of many war critics who won’t be satisfied by any measure of progress or success.
Kathryn Lopez reports that GOP Senate staffers are asking for “Help, please.”
Stand by for press conference liveblogging…
10:30am. Bush begins with a brief tribute to Lady Bird Johnson.
GWB: The conflict has gone through four major phases: liberation from Saddam Hussein, elections, escalation of sectarian violence after the Samarra mosque bombing, and the ongoing surge…The troops need to know they have the unwavering support of the chief. And they do. And they need the enemy to know that America won’t back down…I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to see the day when our brave men and women come home…The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or can’t be won and those who believe we can succeed in Iraq and the fight is worth the cost…
In Anbar province, Sunni tribes now fighting alongside our troops to defeat al Qaeda…now working to replicate that success in other parts of the country…
Talks about interim report…satisfactory progress on some benchmarks, unsatisfactory on others…Our strategy is that security progress will pave the way for political progress…I will rely on Gen. Petraeus to give me his recommendations for the appropriate troop levels in Iraq…DOD…will continue consultations on Congress on both sides of aisle…I know some would like us to leave now…that would be dangerous for Iraq, the region, and the United States…it would mean we would risk mass killings on a mass scale, it would mean AQ could establish a safe haven, the fight in Iraq is part of a broader struggle across the region…the same regime in Iran pursuing nuke weapons and threatening to wipe Israel off the map is supplying weapons…Hezbollah/Syrian regime…refused to close its airport in Damascus to suicide bombers headed to Iraq…We’re also using the tools of diplomacy…sending Rice and Gates to the region in early August…
10:43am. The Iraqis do not want Us forces patrolling their cities forever anymore than Americans do.
…I ask Congress to provide them with the time and resources they need…Troops have achieved great things…Best way to ensure they get home is to ensure they succeed…
First one from Helen Thomas. HT: “Bring in UN peacekeepers! Don’t you understand? You brought al Qaeda into Iraq!”
Actually, I was hoping to solve the Iraqi situation diplomatically. That’s why I went to the United Nations. That’s why they passed a resolution…clear message to Saddam Hussein…he chose the course…it was his decision to make…fundamental question facing America…will we stand with this young democracy…We ought to defeat [the extremists] there, so we don’t have to do it here.
10:49am. Reporter asks about GOP revolt and anti-war sentiment among the public. How long do you wait?
GWB: There’s war fatigue in America…It doesn’t surprise me that there is deep concern among the American people…talks about time needed to place surge troops…since the reinforcements arrived, things have improved…points again to Anbar and Diyala…How long do I wait? I will wait until David Petraeus comes back and gives me his report…
Martha Raddatz presses Bush on lack of political progress despite 3/4s of troops in place…
GWB: As I mentioned, it takes a while to work it through…tensions, rivalries in aftermath of Hussein regime…
Reporter: Have you entertained the idea that Congress might take your sole decision-making power away?
I don’t think Congress ought to be running the war. I think they ought to be funding the troops. Trying to run the war through legislation is a prescription for failure…Congress has all the right in the world to fund. that’s their main involvement in this war. Troop strength? Position? I don’t think that would be good for the country.
10:56am. David Gregory on “irreversible” quote from Mike Hayden/ISG report in WashPost. Why shouldn’t we conclude that you are stubborn, in denial, but certainly not realistic?
GWB: Hayden told Bush his comments were more nuanced…strategy needed to change…
The same folks who are bombing people in Iraq are the same people who attacked us here on 9/11…violence perpetuated by people who have done us harm here at home…
Reporter: What’s the evidence?
GWB: AQ in Iraq has sworn allegiance to Osama bin Laden. The guys who planned 9/11…KSM…we need to take AQI seriously, just like we need to take AQ anywhere seriously…
11:05am. A Scooter Libby question…morality of your most senior advisers leaking the name of a confidential CIA operator…have you communicated your disappointment to them in any way?
I thought the Libby decision was a fair and balanced decision. I haven’t spoken much about the testimony my people were forced to give…I am aware of the fact that perhaps someone in my admin did disclose..I’ve often wondered what would happen if that person came forward and said “I did it”…tough situation…it’s ridden its course and now it’s time to move on…
11:09am. GWB talks about progress on “political reconciliation” in Iraq.
President George W. Bush insisted Thursday America could still win the war in Iraq, despite a bleak picture of progress in the war-wracked nation painted by a White House report.
As Bush tried to quell a Republican revolt and thwart rising Democratic demands to bring troops home, he argued there were still grounds for optimism, especially in the area of security.
“I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must,” Bush said at a press conference called to defend his unpopular strategy, and ruled out any troop withdrawals based on souring public opinion on the war.
He said a pull-back before commanders recommended it was safe, would be “dangerous” for the Middle East and mean handing over Iraq to Al-Qaeda.
AFP also notes: The House is due to vote later today on a bill demanding the withdrawal of most combat troops from Iraq by April 1 next year. The redeployment would begin within 120 days and the president would be forced to report to Congress on why soldiers should stay in Iraq for limited purposes such as fighting terrorism or training Iraqi forces. A similar bill is also being debated in the Senate.