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Bush considers maintaining troop buildup in Iraq

If President George W. Bush's senior advisers have their way that April may become the new September when it comes to deciding whether to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. Congress might not stand for it.

Since Bush ordered the deployment of some 30,000 additional U.S. troops to Iraq in January, he urged Congress to give the new plan until at least September to work. Accordingly, this month became a deadline among lawmakers for substantial progress, including several Republicans who said they were wary of Bush's military strategy but agreed for the most part to bite their tongues until then.

Now, administration officials are recommending Bush stand by his war strategy until the spring, and Bush is considered unlikely to order more than a symbolic cut in troops before the end of the year. Officials familiar with the assessment spoke on condition of anonymity to describe decisions not yet publicly released.

The suggestion is a bold one, considering Republicans lost control of Congress last year because of voter dissatisfaction on the war and polls show Americans overwhelmingly oppose the war.

Also, in recent months, Republican support for the war has deteriorated, with the latest challenge coming from Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who said pulling out a small number of troops by the end of the year would prove to Iraqi leaders that U.S. aid was not a blank check.

"I've been searching - is there another way to kind of hammer the point? I think the message has to be sent," he told reporters Tuesday.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday during a trip to Australia, Bush restated his view that decisions about troop levels should be based on recommendations from military commanders. He noted that Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker would be delivering progress reports soon enough.

"Whether or not that's part of the policy I announce to the nation ... why don't we see what they say and then I'll let you know," Bush said.

Republican support likely will hinge on Petraeus' testimony next week. If he can convince lawmakers that the security gains won in recent months are substantial and point toward a bigger trend - and a promise of major troop reductions soon - Republican members might be willing to hold out until spring.

They also might be persuaded to wait until April if Bush agrees to a small, symbolic drawdown of troops by the end of the year, as is suggested to the White House by Coleman and Senator John Warner, an influential Republican on security matters.

But that would be the best case scenario for Bush in a Congress already gearing up for the 2008 election season. For their part, Democrats will use the unpopularity of the war against Republican candidates, including in the presidential election. Support for cutting off money for the war is also likely to grow, if Bush insists on keeping troops in Iraq at heightened levels through spring.

"It's time to begin to bring our troops home so that we can relieve a strain on our military that endangers our national security," said Senator Barack Obama, a top contender for the Democratic presidential nomination. "It's time to end a war that should never have been authorized."

After a month at home with constituents, nearly a dozen members of the House of Representatives issued a call Tuesday for bipartisan cooperation in Congress to stabilize Iraq and "bring our troops home" after more than four years of war.

The letter, signed by six Republicans and five Democrats, many of them political moderates, contained no specific timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces and took no position on earlier calls to limit future funds for the war.

Instead, it urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Minority Leader John Boehner to "work together to put an end to the political infighting" that has marked congressional debate on the conflict thus far.

In a report released Tuesday, the Government Accountability Office found that Iraq had met only three of its 18 political and security goals, partially met four and failed to meet 11 of its benchmarks.

In his Senate testimony, Comptroller General David Walker said the Congress should ask itself what it wants to achieve in Iraq and can do so realistically. After determining the goal, the U.S. could better reassess what the goal should be of U.S. forces, he said.

Walker also challenged a key assertion by the administration in the war, that improved security made in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province was indicative of overall progress in Iraq. Walker warned that the success in Anbar may be isolated.

"It's not Baghdad," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I mean, Baghdad is a separate province unto itself and that's the particularly acute situation right now."

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