WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice exhorted congressional critics of Iraq war policy Friday to give the Bush administration and the fledgling government in Baghdad until September to "make a coherent judgment of where we are."
On the morning after the House voted 223-201 for a Democratic proposal to force a U.S. troop withdrawal by next spring, Rice acknowledged in a round of television interviews that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government hasn't achieved "as much progress as we would like."
"But we shouldn't just dismiss as inconsequential the progress that they have made," the secretary argued.
Maj. Gen. Benjamin R. Mixon, a top U.S. commander in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters via a video linkup from Iraq that "there will be consequences" if U.S. troops are withdrawn too soon.
"With the support of the American people, I'm convinced that we can continue to make progress," he said.
"What troubles me about this debate — and it is important and it needs to be debated, for sure — is it seems to me that we should first decide what we want the end state to be in Iraq, and how is that end state important to the United States of America, to this region and to the world — and then determine how we can reach that end state and how much time it will take," added Mixon, who commands troops in northern Iraq, including the violent Diyala province.
Mixon's operational briefing on what troops have been doing in recent weeks in some ways mirrored the mixed report released by the White House Thursday regarding progress in Iraq.
He enumerated military successes — the number of militants captured, weapons caches seized, terrain retaken and so on. But he also acknowledged that much work remains, noting for instance, as the Washington report did, that the Iraqi government is no where near mastering logistics and other issues needed to make its security forces capable of taking over responsibility from U.S. forces.
For her part, Rice argued that Baghdad has made headway in lowering the level of sectarian violence, pointing to "something that isn't even on that benchmark list — the tremendous change in al Anbar province, where you have the sheiks, the local people, taking back their streets from al-Qaida."
"I understand people's concern. I understand people's impatience," she said. But Rice said "we ought to stick" to the troop build up strategy that President Bush announced in January, and wait until September when commanding Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to deliver a new assessment of conditions there.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, said Friday, "I don't think there's much debate in the Senate about disappointment with the Iraqi government. It's pretty uniform." But he said he expects the Republican caucus to stand behind Bush.
The White House took the position that the House vote shows, "we have at least a cohesive position on our side for now," deputy press secretary Dana Perino said Friday.
"We are under no illusion and we're very clear-eyed about the fact that we have a lot of work to do to talk to members of Congress, hear what they have to say," she said, "but just as important, to provide David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker enough time for them to get their plan under way and implemented so that we can move those unsatisfactory marks into the satisfactory column."
Asked whether Bush could still resist a mandated timeline after September, Perino replied, "Absolutely, yes."
Congressional Democrats, saying the war was draining U.S. assets from the fight against al-Qaida, moved Friday to highlight what they see as a major failure in Bush's war on terror: the inability to bring Osama bin Laden to justice.
The Senate voted 87-1 in favor of doubling the reward to $50 million for information leading to his capture. The bill also would require regular classified reports from the administration explaining what steps it's taking to find bin Laden.
Said Rice: "I don't agree that you would give it (the al-Maliki government) a failing grade. You would say that it's a work in progress. You would say that they have not made inconsequential movement forward on some of the important benchmarks, particularly those involving security."
Rice appeared on Fox News' "Fox & Friends," ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's "The Early Show" and on CNN; McConnell appeared on CNN.