White House Downplays 'Staying the Course'

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The White House acknowledges that it has been working with Iraq's government to set benchmarks, such as quelling the sectarian violence and disarming deadly militias. But the administration is offering few specifics, and it insists that it has issued the young government neither a timetable nor an ultimatum.

In recent months, President Bush has faced pressure to change course in Iraq — not only from Democrats, but from a number of influential Republicans.

One of the president's trademarks is his self-portrait as a steadfast leader. He has often invoked the importance of "staying the course" in Iraq, and finishing the job of building a democracy.

Speaking in Utah at the end of August, President Bush said, "We will stay the course. We will help this young Iraqi democracy succeed."

But that may have been the last time the president used the phrase "stay the course." On Monday, White House spokesman Tony Snow said that the phrase was dropped after August. When asked about the change, Snow paused briefly before answering.

"Because it left the wrong impression about what was going on. And it allowed critics to say, 'Well, here's an administration that's just embarked upon a policy, not looking at what the situation is,' when in fact it's just the opposite."

The military has said that its attempts to secure Baghdad have so far been ineffective. And the number of U.S. troops dead and wounded this month is already the highest of any month this year.

Over the weekend, President Bush spent time with his military commanders; on Monday morning, he met with his secretaries of State and Defense.

Snow was careful in describing the sessions Monday. The New York Times reported over the weekend that U.S. military commanders are exerting pressure on Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his new government. The paper said the military has a program of benchmarks and timetables for Maliki to meet, one of which insists that he move more aggressively to disarm the militias running rampant in his country.

Snow acknowledged parts of the story, saying that "trying to put together benchmarks is an important way of focusing and combining efforts so that everybody's playing off the same playbook, looking at the same goals and working together."

But many experts say the challenge for the White House lies in finding a way to press the Baghdad government to make progress without upsetting Iraq's fragile governing coalition.

With all the talk of timetables and benchmarks in recent days, Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh issued a plea to the United States and its partners not to panic.

"There is no option for the international community to cut and run," Saleh says. "The fate of Iraq is vital to the future of the Middle East and world order.

"I believe that the international community must recognize that they have a partner in the government of Iraq."

But with the political climate in the United States changing, it now seems that that partnership is not unlimited. And the Bush administration's commitment may not be as open-ended as it once appeared.

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