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No debate about leaving Iraq, says White House
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11:08, July 10, 2007

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US President George W. Bush is not contemplating withdrawing US forces from Iraq now despite an erosion of support among Republicans for his war policy, the White House said yesterday.

The administration also tried to lower expectations about a report due next Sunday on whether the Iraqi government is meeting political, economic and security benchmarks that Bush set in January when he announced a buildup of 21,500 US combat forces. White House press secretary Tony Snow said that all of the additional troops had just gotten in place and it would be unrealistic to expect major progress now.

"You are not going to expect all the benchmarks to be met at the beginning of something," Snow said. "You are hoping that you are going to be able to see progress in terms of meeting benchmarks from that beginning stage to what you see in two months."

But at the same time, he said that September 15 is not "the drop dead date" by which everything should be completed.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates shortened a planned trip this week so he would be in Washington to attend policy meetings aimed at coming up with the report to Congress.

In Florida for a military ceremony, Gates participated in a video conference yesterday with the president's national security team, said Defense Department spokesman Bryan Whitman. He was to have continued on to Latin America, but changed his plans so he could return to Washington.

Asked if Pentagon officials were studying a change in Iraq strategy, Whitman would say only that the military is "focused on implementing" the current strategy.

Bush is under growing pressure even within his own party to shift course in Iraq as the war drags on and casualties climb. At least 3,605 members of the US military have died since the war began in March 2003 and many thousands of Iraqis have also perished.

Civil war warning

Senator Susan Collins, top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said there had been "a steady erosion for the president's policy" in Congress because of the "tremendous loss of life among our troops" in June and "the failure of the Iraqi government to pursue the political reforms that are necessary to quell the sectarian violence."

But Iraqi leaders yesterday warned that an early US troop withdrawal could tip Iraq into all-out civil war.

"This could produce a civil war, partition of the country and a regional war. We might see the country collapse," Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, a Kurd, told a news conference.

Iraqi officials said the country's own security forces were not ready and warned a premature withdrawal of some of the 157,000 American troops could produce a security vacuum.

"We in Iraq believe, not just the government, but all political parties, that the presence of these forces is necessary to prevent increasing violence and to stop the country sliding into civil war," said Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Sunni Arab Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, said: "I would be very happy to see the last American soldier leave today... We understand their worry about not seeing much political progress in Iraq. But the problem is: who will fill the security vacuum if these forces withdraw?"

Source: China Daily/agencies

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