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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Republican senator urges Bush to start Iraq exit by Christmas

Republican senator urges Bush to start Iraq exit by Christmas

· Call comes after bleak US intelligence assessment
· Military fears Tet-style offensive in coming weeks

Ewen MacAskill in Washington
Friday August 24, 2007
The Guardian

A US soldier watches a road through binoculars during a patrol 12 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq
A US soldier watches a road through binoculars during a patrol 12 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq. Photograph: Maya Alleruzzo/AP

A senior Republican senator, John Warner, last night urged President George Bush to begin bringing troops back from Iraq by Christmas, as US intelligence agencies published a bleak assessment of the chances of progress in the country in the next 12 months.

Mr Warner, who has recently returned from Iraq and is widely respected by his Republican colleagues, went much further than in June when he first broke ranks with Mr Bush over the war. After a meeting with White House aides, he told reporters: "We simply cannot, as a nation, stand and continue to put our troops at continuous risk of loss of life and limb without beginning to take some decisive action."

But he did not go as far as saying that he would support Democratic members of Congress who are likely to renew their attempts to pass legislation to set a timetable for withdrawal. So far only a handful of Republicans have joined them.

He spoke only hours after the national intelligence estimate, the consensus view of the CIA and 15 other American intelligence agencies, published their latest assessment of Iraq. They predicted that the prospects for the Iraqi government are "precarious", and expressed fears of a surprise attack in that country in the next few weeks comparable to the 1968 Tet offensive that threatened to overwhelm American forces in Vietnam.

An American defence official, briefing journalists ahead of publication, said US forces are braced for "a mini-Tet". He predicted that the attack could be timed to maximise political pressure on President Bush, when the US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, goes to Congress next month to provide an up-to-date assessment of progress.

In contrast with regular press statements from the Pentagon about inflicting casualties on al-Qaida in Iraq, the national intelligence report said the militant group, which has concentrated on "spectacular" attacks, remained strong enough to conduct further high-profile operations.

The 10-page summary, Prospects for Iraq's Stability, is the first such report since January, when Mr Bush announced his "surge" strategy, in which he sent an extra 30,000 US troops to Iraq. The report said gains had been modest: "There have been measurable, but uneven, improvements in Iraq's security situation [since January]." It added: "We assess, to the extent that coalition forces continue to conduct robust counter-insurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi security forces, that Iraq's security will continue to improve modestly during the next 6-12 months, but that levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance."

Mr Bush criticised the Iraqi president, Nouri al-Maliki on Tuesday, but 24 hours later in a piece of damage limitation, he praised him. Mr Maliki, on a visit to Syria, had said he could turn to friends elsewhere if the US ditched him - almost certainly a reference to Iran.

The report also said that the Iraqi army and police had not improved enough to operate independently of the US and other coalition forces.

The White House claimed the report vindicated the administration's "surge" strategy. Gordon Johndroe, the national security council spokesman, said it showed "that our strategy has improved the security environment in Iraq, but we still face very tough challenges ahead".

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