WASHINGTON (AFP) – Faced with Republican defections, senior US officials are debating whether President George W. Bush should announce soon his intention to begin a gradual withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities, The New York Times reported on its website late Sunday.
Citing unnamed administration officials, the newspaper said Bush and his aides once thought they could wait to begin those discussions until after September 15, when the top military commander and the US ambassador are scheduled to present a progress report.
But some of Bush’s aides now believe forces are combining against him just as the Senate prepares to begin what promises to be a contentious debate on the defense authorization bill, the report said.
About half a dozen Republican senators have recently announced they can no longer support Bush’s Iraq strategy and demanded change.
As a result, The Times said, some aides are now telling Bush that if he wants to forestall more defections, it would be wiser to announce plans for a far more narrowly defined mission for US troops that would allow for a staged pullback.
The president had rejected this strategy in December when it was proposed by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
“When you count up the votes that we’ve lost and the votes we’re likely to lose over the next few weeks, it looks pretty grim,” the paper quotes one senior official as saying.
In a sign of growing concern in the administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled his Latin American tour Sunday to attend meetings on Iraq.
Last week, national security adviser Stephen Hadley was called in from a brief vacation to join discussions on Iraq included political strategist Karl Rove and Joshua Bolten, the White House chief of staff, according to the report.
Officials describe Hadley as deeply concerned that the loss of Republicans could accelerate this week, a fear shared by Rove, the report said.
But they also said that Rove had warned that if Bush went too far in announcing a redeployment, the result could include a further cascade of defections — and the passage of legislation that would force a withdrawal by a specific date, the paper said.
“Everyone’s particularly worried about what happens when McCain gets back from Iraq,” one of the officials is quoted by The Times as saying.
Republican Senator John McCain has been a stalwart supporter of the “surge” strategy, but is facing political troubles in the race for the Republican nomination for president.
His poor performance in the polls attributed to his position on Iraq has fueled speculation that McCain may declare that the Iraqi government is incapable of reaching the kind of political accommodations that Washington considers necessary for overall success, The Times said.