WASHINGTON – Even some critics of President Bush's Iraq war policies are conceding there is evidence of recent improvements from a military standpoint. But Bush supporters and critics alike agree that these have not been matched by any noticeable progress on the political front.
Despite U.S. pressure, Iraq's parliament went on vacation for a month after failing to pass either legislation to share the nation's oil wealth or to reconcile differences among the factions. And nearly all Sunni representatives in the government have quit, undermining the legitimacy of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
Still, there have been signs of changes in attitudes, some on the ground in Iraq, some in the United States:
—Two critics of Bush's recent handling of Iraq, Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack, both of the Brookings Institution, penned an op-ed opinion piece in The New York Times suggesting after a visit that "we are finally getting somewhere in Iraq, at least in military terms." They recommended Congress sustain the current troop buildup "at least into 2008."
—Leading anti-war Democrat Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania predicted that U.S. commanders will begin drawing down troop levels early next year and that Congress can be more flexible in setting a fixed deadline for ending the U.S. occupation.
—Polls suggest that Bush has had some degree of success in linking Islamic militants in Iraq with the Al Qaeda terrorist movement.
"The administration is aggressively engaged in shifting (public) attitudes. And our side has been less aggressive than it needs to be," said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake. "The administration has been making inroads on their Iraqi argument, particularly linking it to terrorism."
After sliding to just 28 percent in June, within range of an all-time low, Bush's job approval rating on handling Iraq rose slightly to 31 percent in July, according to AP-Ipsos polling. And a recent CBS/New York Times poll showed an increase in the percentage of Americans who think the U.S. did the right thing in going to war with Iraq, up to 42 percent from 35 percent in May.
"I don't claim our recommendation to keep surging into 2008 is a no-brainer. That can be debated. But I think people's opinions need to catch up with the battlefield facts," O'Hanlon said in an interview.
The op-ed piece he wrote with Pollack has been widely circulated by war supporters but denounced by many war critics. "As long as people start to get a sense that what's happening on the battlefield is different and better than what it was, then I feel like we've made our contribution," said O'Hanlon.
O'Hanlon and Pollack supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but they have been sharply critical of the administration's handling of the aftermath.
Like the Iraqi parliament, Congress has recessed for the rest of August, to return in September — when an eagerly awaited progress report on Iraq will be presented by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
What lawmakers hear from their constituents during the next month could do a lot to shape the Iraq debate ahead of receiving that report.
Visiting Iraq, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate, said Wednesday from Baghdad that American-led forces were "making some measurable progress, but it's slow going."
"As our troops show some progress toward security, the government of this nation is moving in the opposite direction. This is really unsustainable with the American people," Durbin said in an interview with National Public Radio.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that Petraeus' plan was "producing good results. And the troops have achieved tactical momentum against Al Qaeda. ...We're anxious to see what General Petraeus has to say in September. It will be a watershed moment in our efforts in Iraq."
Petraeus asserted that "we are making progress. We have achieved tactical momentum in many areas, especially against Al Qaeda Iraq, and to a lesser degree against the militia extremists." Still, he told Fox News on Tuesday that "there are innumerable challenges."
Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies said, progress there "is a very mixed bag." After visiting Iraq, Cordesman cited recent military successes against Al Qaeda terrorists — but said there has been less progress against Shiite extremist groups.
"I think senior Iraqi political leaders are talking to each other, but they're doing it around the prime minister (al-Maliki). It's not clear the prime minister is exerting any great leadership toward conciliation," Cordesman said.
Michele Flournoy, a former Pentagon defense strategist and now president of the Center for a New American Security, said that "the clock in Washington is running down pretty fast. There's sort of a wall next March-April. That's when they'll have to start replacing units, which will hit the 15-month mark." Bush recently extended tours of duty from 12 months to 15 months.
"They're going to have some very tough choices then. Either the 'surge' will de facto end and they'll start bringing people out because there's no units to replace them. Or you're going to have to have a presidential decision to extend tours from 15 months to 18 months," Flournoy said.
Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a Virginia-based think tank that follows defense issues, cites "significant progress" on the military front. "There's the backlash against Al Qaeda in Anbar Province. There's a reduction in attacks in Baghdad. And there's the ongoing stabilization efforts in the suburban belt around Baghdad," Thompson said.
"The problem is that nobody in the United States sees any significant progress on the political front. The Shiites and Sunni factions in the government don't seem to be able to get along. And that makes Congress wonder whether we're making any real progress. Because, even with better security, the country can't figure out how to take care of itself," Thompson added.