As Congress prepared for a crucial war-funding vote, President George Bush warned that Americans should prepare for a bloody summer of heavy fighting and more loss of life in Iraq in the run-up to September, the month that is now set to be a watershed for US policy in the country.
“August could be tough,” the President conceded at a White House press conference in the face of some of the toughest questioning yet of his war policy – especially of whether the date for the now critical report promised by his top commander in Iraq had in fact handed insurgents precisely the sort of deadline that Mr Bush has all along strenuously resisted.
Attempting to explain the continuing level of violence in Iraq, Mr Bush pointed out that the “surge” of 25,000 new combat troops would not be completed until next month, and that General David Petraeus was to make a first judgement on the success of the operation only in September. But if nothing has visibly changed on the ground, then the clamour for a US troop withdrawal could become deafening.
As it is, the latest $100bn (£50bn) funding bill for Iraq and Afghanistan (which also will run out at the end of September) has been stripped of the timeline for withdrawal which caused Mr Bush to veto a previous measure earlier this month. The new one instead contains “benchmarks” for political action by the Iraqis. These, Mr Bush said, reflected “a consensus that the Iraqi government needs to show real progress in return for America’s continued support and sacrifice”.
On Capitol Hill however, a deal is causing not so much consensus as heartache in both parties. With varying degrees of unease, Republicans have again rallied behind Mr Bush. This removes any possibility of a veto over-ride by Congress, but exposes them to the wrath of an electorate which has turned against the war.
Democratic rifts are even deeper. Many liberal congressmen and senators said they would vote against the bill which, they insist, runs counter to the express will of the voters who handed the party back control of both chambers in November’s mid-term elections. The leading anti-war group, Moveon.org, with 3.2 million members, has warned it might back primary election rivals to Democrats who vote in favour. But the party leadership has calculated that despite the risk that half of the House Democrats will oppose the measure, an even greater danger would be exposure to Republican charges that the party did not care about the troops who risked risking their lives daily on the ground in Iraq. Even so, Democratic leaders face the embarrassment of relying on Republican votes to get the bill through.
The tensions have spilt over into the Presidential campaign. John Edwards, the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 2004 who this time is waging a populist campaign for the White House, called the latest bill a “capitulation” to Mr Bush. The two 2008 front-runners, senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, were last night maintaining an uncomfortable silence about their voting intentions.
At his press conference, Mr Bush himself yielded not one inch of ground to his critics – even when a reporter directly challenged his credibility as commander-in-chief in a four-year war that has taken the lives of more than 3,400 US servicemen, and tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Instead he reiterated his familiar arguments: that Iraq was better off without Saddam; that America must stay on the offensive; and that it was better to take on al-Qa’ida in Iraq than on US soil.
“These people attacked us before we went into Iraq,” said Mr Bush. A US withdrawal would merely embolden al-Qa’ida in its efforts to restore the caliphate, “if they could say they drove great, soft America out of the region”. As for the efforts of his Democratic opponents to have a say in the execution of war policy, “I’d trust David Petraeus to make judgements a lot better than people in Congress,” Mr Bush declared.