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Lawmakers chafe at steady-state Iraq policy

Senate Democrats to try again to force a faster exit of US troops.

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Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says any war-related votes will be subject to the 60-vote threshold that has become standard for important legislation to make it onto the Senate floor. Petraeus "enjoys great respect on both sides of the aisle, and I'm optimistic that when all is said and done his suggestions will be largely the position in the Senate," he said after the meeting at the White House between Bush and lawmakers.

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At the heart of the case that Petraeus and Crocker presented this week is the view that it is still possible, despite enormous challenges, for the US to meet its goals in Iraq and for Iraqis to achieve political reconciliation.

"In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena," said Petraeus, who told House and Senate panels that his remarks were his own and had not been cleared by the Pentagon or the White House.

The overall number of security incidents has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks, ethno-sectarian violence has been reduced, and the number of overall civilian deaths has declined, although they are still at "troubling levels," he said.

Pressed as to why the assessment by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, was not so optimistic, Petraeus said the GAO analysis did not include statistics covering the past five weeks in Iraq, which were especially positive.

"There's much disagreement relative to the facts on the ground in Iraq, on the issue of whether or not the surge has produced significant progress in terms of security," said Senator Levin, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, citing recent public opinion polls that indicate Iraqis feel less secure than before the surge. But there is little dispute that the purpose of the surge – "to give Iraqi politicians breathing space to work out a political settlement" – has not been achieved, Levin added. The Iraqi government hasn't set a date for provincial elections, approved a new law to ensure that all Iraqi groups share in oil revenues, or passed measures to promote political reconciliation.

In response, Crocker and Petraeus insisted that there had been progress toward reconciliation. Despite the absence of an oil law, Iraq is sharing oil revenue with provinces that do not produce oil. While there is no general amnesty law, there is conditional amnesty, allowing supporters of the former regime to attend the police academy, they said.

That assessment of whether political reconciliation is possible in Iraq is emerging as a key issue in the next war votes.

"I have a lot of respect for General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, but I continue to believe we should not delay to change the mission of our troops to lay the groundwork for a more significant drawdown," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has been targeted by national antiwar groups for her support of the war.

Other Republican lawmakers say they are troubled by the strain put on US forces by extended deployments. The Senate is within two votes of passing a measure to require minimum rest periods at home for US military units before redeployment to Iraq, says majority leader Harry Reid.

That idea, contained in a bill that passed the House on Aug. 2, would curb the president's ability to sustain current force levels in Iraq. Bush has threatened to veto it. In the Senate, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia proposed a similar measure, but it failed to overcome a filibuster.

"I'm more inclined to vote for it than before, because I've talked to too many guys going back [to Iraq] with involuntary extensions," says Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio. "We've got many guys very angry. We've got to recognize it. That's the reality right now."