Bush running out of friends over Iraq

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President George Bush faced another bleak day over Iraq yesterday as news of the deaths of eight US soldiers followed the publishing of a damning independent report into the progress of Iraq's security forces. The only bright spot for the increasingly isolated Mr Bush came on arrival in Sydney where the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, offered his staunch backing for a continued presence in Iraq.

The independent assessment by a 20-member panel led by retired US General James Jones, said Iraq's security forces have made "uneven progress" and are unlikely in the next 12 to 18 months to take over security on their own. It came only days before the Bush Administration's own progress report on Iraq which will be presented by General David Petraeus, the commander on the ground, to Congress next week.

The 37-page study said Baghdad's police force and Ministry of Interior are plagued by "dysfunction".

On a brighter note it found that Iraq's military forces, notably the Army, show "clear evidence of developing the baseline infrastructures that lead to the successful formation of a national defence capability".

General Jones was formerly in charge of US troops in Europe as well as the Marine Corps Commandant. He is to testify before Congress today. His report is breezily upbeat about progress made by the Iraqi army describing it as "proficient" in counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations.

"They are gaining size and strength, and will increasingly be capable of assuming greater responsibility for Iraq's security," the report states, adding that special forces in particular are "highly capable and extremely effective".

The dismal reports came as Mr Bush's Democratic opponents try to force a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in the expectation that Mr Bush will try to keep them in place in early 2008. At best Mr Bush is expected to order symbolic cut in troops by Christmas, something General Petraeus hinted at in an interview with ABC News this week.

They also might be persuaded to wait until April if Mr Bush agrees to a small, symbolic drawdown of troops by the end of the year, as is suggested to the White House by Senator John Warner, an influential Republican on security matters.

President Bush stood shoulder to shoulder yesterday with Mr Howard, one of his few remaining allies in the Iraq war, as the Australian Prime Minister pledged to keep troops there for as long as "conditions on the ground" warranted it.

Mr Bush, returning the favour, said Mr Howard's prospects of winning a fifth term at an election expected in November should not be written off.

However, an opinion poll this week predicted a landslide victory for the Opposition Labour leader, Kevin Rudd, who has pledged to implement a staged withdrawal of troops if elected. That will make for an interesting discussion when Mr Bush – who is in Sydney for the annual APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit – meets Mr Rudd later this week.

Australia has about 1,500 troops in and around Iraq, of which 550 are combat troops.

This may be the last meeting, as leaders, between Mr Bush and Mr Howard, old friends who have always offered each other staunch support. The US President has in the past called the Prime Minister a "man of steel", and Australia the US's deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific. Mr Howard has been in power for 11 years.

However, the pair now have the air of yesterday's men, regardless of the fanfare that has greeted the APEC summit, one of the biggest international meetings ever staged in Australia.

Unprecedented security measures are in place in Sydney, where a security fence has virtually cut the city centre in two, and landmarks such as the Opera House are off limits. Police are expecting violent clashes at an anti-war demonstration this weekend. Yesterday the two leaders had lunch at Garden Island, a naval base in Sydney Harbour, with a dozen Zodiac inflatables packed with security officers tailing their luxury yacht.

At a joint press conference, Mr Bush said that senior commanders in Iraq had told him that security conditions were improving. If that continued, he said, "we may be able to provide the same security with fewer troops".

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