White House, Lawmakers Mull Next Move in Iraq

President Bush awaits commanding Gen. David Petraeus' assessment of the war in Iraq, to be delivered to Congress in September. Also, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., is in Baghdad to see how the surge is progressing.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush and his critics are considering their next moves over Iraq. This is a moment when both sides are waiting; they're waiting for September when the commanding general gives an assessment. But that doesn't mean they're not active.

In a moment we'll hear, and meet, a leading Democratic critic of the president who's visiting Baghdad.

We begin with NPR White House correspondent David Greene. He's been tracking a meeting of President Bush and his top advisers.

Good morning, David.

DAVID GREENE: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, David, what do they have to talk about?

GREENE: Well, the president sat down at Camp David with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates and their staffs from the two departments. And those departments are the one that are going to produce this report to the president in less than six weeks, and it's going to be drafted by the ground commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, and also on the State Department side by Ambassador Ryan Crocker. And the White House has been trying to say this is, you know, just another update, but lawmakers in both parties are looking to this mid-September report with a lot of urgency.

MONTAGNE: And much of the Iraqi government- and the parliament, more to the point - is taking the month off. How can President Bush argue that progress is being made?

GREENE: It's a big problem for Mr. Bush and his team. And before joining President Bush at Camp David, Defense Secretary Gates scolded Iraqi leaders and the parliament for vacationing. He said for every day that we buy you, we're buying it with American blood. The idea of you going on vacation is unacceptable. And worse, it's not just a matter of vacation time, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has seen his government fall apart. A lot of the Sunni ministers in the government have submitted their resignation, saying they can't work with Prime Minister Maliki who's Shiite.

You know, Renee, you can see how this is just really sipping into everything in the White House and making life very difficult in every way in their message. The president was talking about another subject - the budget - last week and saying that Democrats want to spend $22 billion more than he wants, and saying that's a lot of money. And reporters came back and said, you know, if that's a lot of money, what is the trillion dollars that the Congressional Budget Office says the Iraq war may cost?

MONTAGNE: David, stay with us. We're going to listen now to one of the president's opponents in Congress. Steve?

INSKEEP: Yeah, his name is Richard Durbin. He is the number two Democrat in the Senate, which means he's been at the center of Democratic struggles to assert some control over U.S. policy in Iraq. And this morning, we reached Senator Durbin as he visited Baghdad.

Senator RICHARD DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Well, I can tell you that it's hotter than a furnace here. And we went to move to a patrol base 10 miles outside of Baghdad where there's a surge effort on the way, about 900 of our troops are involved. They're really trying to take control of the territory, which in the first five years or so of this war has really been left to the enemy. It's a valiant heroic effort by our troops, and one that's showing some result on the ground.

INSKEEP: Really? Have you heard something that has changed your skepticism about the overall mission?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, I've never been skeptical about our troops and their ability to accept a mission and to perform it well. I can see that even in the earliest stages here. But there's a reality as well. There is no evidence of the Iraqi government in this area - none. And when you meet with local people and talk to them about the follow-through once our troops have really done the job, there's a long, long way to seeing that happen.

INSKEEP: Are Iraqi troops working alongside the American troops at all?

Sen. DURBIN: No. And it's disappointing, but I think it reflects the reality. For almost five years now, we have talked about standing up 300, 400,000 Iraqi troops to take the place of American soldiers. In some parts of the country that's happening in a limited way, but the idea that our surge will be handed off to the Iraqis, at this point, is just a theory.

INSKEEP: What does that imply for U.S. efforts or hopes to eventually pull out of Iraq?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, it's not very encouraging now (unintelligible). I have to tell you quite honestly that when they ask about when will this end, I think most of these soldiers view it in terms of their deployment - 15 months of risking their lives every single day, do their mission, and then probably handing an off to a another group of American soldiers.

That's the thing that I think many of us find troubling. And this is a troubled nation. The very basics are still an issue here: electricity, and water, and jobs. And it's a troubled government where the Shias that were loyal to Sadr were forced out, and the Sunnis walked out. It's no longer a government of national unity and, honestly, even the best military leaders in America suggest the long-term goal here has to be a strong government. We're a long way from it.

INSKEEP: Well, if you are a long from that government, can I ask what would happen if you got your way, which is a relatively early withdrawal of U.S. troops?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, I honestly believe that we have to understand the reality on ground here and deal with it. And the reality is that the Iraqis are still caught up in these squabbles between sanctions here that branch into civil war in their worst iteration. And we have to let them know that we cannot stay here indefinitely and wait for them to come to grips with basic questions. Do they want a nation? Do they want to come together as a nation? Who will they choose as their government and will they be loyal to that government? I mean these are fundamental issue still unresolved in the fifth year of this war.

INSKEEP: As you know, President Bush has warned of chaos if U.S. troops leave. Senator John McCain, your fellow senator, has even used the word genocide as one possibility. Without saying that will happen, I wonder if you're willing to accept that possibility. If you would say, even if the worst happens, it's better for U.S. troops to pull out when they can.

Sen. DURBIN: I can just tell you honestly, I don't know if we left in 10 months or 10 years if there would be a remarkable difference. I think we're making some measurable progress but it's slow-going. And the fact that as our troops show some progress towards security, the government of this nation is moving in the opposite direction. This is really unsustainable with the American people. I mean, they are behind the troops and their families, we want them to be successful, but we have to accept the reality on the ground. And I think the Bush administration has really ignored this reality. They're not accepting the fact that this al-Maliki government is not a government of national unity.

INSKEEP: As you look across the United States Senate, how much longer do you think the White House can sustain enough support to prevent you from forcing a new policy on the White House?

Sen. DURBIN: Well, that's quite - that's an important question. It was asked to me this morning by a soldier sitting next to me on a C-130, as I came in with the troops sitting in the backend of the cargo plane. And he said, well, are we leaving? Are we getting out of here? And I said, there are four Republican senators and joined Democrats, we need seven more. He says, which one of those senators could spend the day with me in the life of a soldier here in Iraq? I think that said it all from where I was sitting.

INSKEEP: Richard Durbin of Illinois is the second-ranking Democrat of the Senate. We reached him in Baghdad. Senator, thanks very much.

Sen. DURBIN: Thanks a lot, Steve.

MONTAGNE: NPR's White House correspondent David Greene has been listening into our interview with Senator Durbin. And, David, how much time does the White House have before it runs out of Republican support in Congress?

GREENE: We'll learn a lot when lawmakers come back from their August recess. This is going to be a critical month, you know, not just in Iraq but in the United States. A lot of members of Congress are going to be listening to their voters when they're back in their districts, a lot of them are looking forward to their reelection. And if the polls are telling us anything, it's that they're probably going to get an earful. And so they'll be honing their message and deciding what to tell the president once they all come back to Washington. And we're going to get a real spirited debate, I think, in September.

And I would look at the Republicans, and a lot is going to depend on the patience that they show once this report comes from the commander, David Petraeus. You even have had some of the Republican leaders like Mitch McConnell of Kentucky say, you know, this September report is basically it. You know, we want the progress report, and if things aren't looking good, we want a change of course. So the pressure that comes from the Republican Party on the president will really tell us how quickly he has to change things.

INSKEEP: Well now, David, you mentioned listening to constituents. I wonder if they listen more to constituents or to the news from Iraq. We heard Senator Durbin say that there were some signs of progress, even though he's not too optimistic overall. Other Democrats, including some analysts, have gone over and said that there are signs of progress. Does any of that come in time, do you think, to change the basic nature of the debate here?

GREENE: Well, you saw some Republicans pointing to this Brookings Institution study, when Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack, two scholars, went to Iraq and came back and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times saying that this war could be won. It even came up in the Republican debate recently. But then, those people who were showing optimism got a bit of bad news when another scholar, Anthony Cordesman, came back and has published a report saying that he was on that very same trip and has a much more bleak assessment of the situation there.

MONTAGNE: David, thanks very much. That's NPR's White House correspondent David Greene.

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