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The Baghdad Conundrum

Prepared by: Robert McMahon, Editor
Updated: April 19, 2007

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A series of bombs ripped through Baghdad, killing at least 171 people and calling into question the effectiveness of the White House plan to secure the capital (NYT). Bush has stressed that the so-called surge, which calls for an extra twenty-one thousand troops to be deployed in Baghdad and Anbar province, is only partially underway. And an Associated Press tally since the surge began two months ago found Iraqi civilian deaths dropped by nearly half in Baghdad compared to the two previous months. But civilian deaths are up outside the capital, in cities like Baquba (NYT) and Haswah (WSJ).

Back in Washington, there was no apparent softening of views on the war in Iraq when President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders sat down to discuss an emergency funding bill. Instead, said participants in the meeting, there appeared to be an acknowledgement that Congress will present Bush soon with a bill tying a troop timeline to funding, and he will veto it (AP). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) said Bush “must search his soul, his conscience” to recognize that a bill calling for a troop drawdown next year is right for the country. The talks took place on an especially bloody day in Iraq, with multiple bombings killing nearly two hundred people (Reuters). The White House wants to give time for Bush’s surge strategy, which aims at pacifying the capital to permit the space for political progress among Iraqi factions, to work.

Bush has tried to frame the debate in Washington as a troop support issue, saying repeatedly he will not accept any measure that “hamstrings our troops” and that “we should not legislate defeat in this vital war.” Democrats stress their bill reflects the mandate (PollingReport.com) of a majority of Americans, who have shown in public opinion polls they would rather see troop numbers drawn down in Iraq than increased, as Bush called for under a plan initiated earlier this year.

The standoff highlights one of the strongest attempts in years by Congress to assert its war powers, an issue examined in this new Backgrounder. Both sides acknowledge Congress holds the purse strings and that the Democratic majority doesn’t have the votes to override a presidential veto. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) indicated on Sunday that in the event of a veto, Congress could replace language (WashPost) calling for an imminent withdrawal with provisions stating political benchmarks that the Iraqi government must meet or face a drawdown in military and economic support. And there are signs the Democrats may be satisfied they have scored enough (CSMonitor) political points to pass modified legislation that Bush would accept.

If the Democrats agree to fund the surge, at least for the short term, they are likely to resume pressure for a more considered withdrawal plan, especially as the 2008 presidential election campaign heats up. CFR Senior Fellow Steven Simon, author of a Council Special Report that calls for disengagement from Iraq, still believes the Democrats’ timetables are too rushed. Instead, he writes in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, there is need for a “timetable that meshes with politics at home and military and diplomatic realities in the Middle East.” He says it is possible to achieve a complete withdrawal of combat forces by early 2009.

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