Petraeus may have bought Bush more time

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WASHINGTON, Sep 12 (Reuters) Gen David Petraeus' report of progress in Iraq may have bought President George W Bush more time to pursue the war while blunting Democrats' immediate hopes of imposing a timetable for a US pullout.

Anticipation by Democrats that the Petraeus report would prompt a sea change in policy have dissipated, even as Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters they are ready for the troops to come home.

Republicans, too, are signaling their increasing impatience with Iraq and the absence of progress on political reconciliation there among warring factions.

Still, there was no sign yet of a dramatic erosion in Republican ranks that would give Democrats who hold a slim majority in the US Congress enough votes to force Bush to shift course.

''Basically what's happened is the administration did just enough to stem the hemorrhaging of support on the Republican side of the aisle,'' said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert at the Brookings Institution.

Petraeus, in two days of congressional testimony this week, said the deployment of 30,000 more troops has made sufficient progress that these forces can be pulled out by next summer.

Democrats are under strong pressure from the anti-war left to try to force a full US withdrawal from Iraq, particularly by including pullout conditions in a defense spending bill.

The liberal group created a firestorm by publishing a full-page advertisement in The New York Times on Monday calling Petraeus ''General Betray Us'' and accusing him of ''cooking the books for the White House.'' Mann said the ad was ''as counter-productive as one can imagine'' because it forced Democrats to treat Petraeus more gently than they otherwise might have.

Republicans accused of taking its criticism too far and tried to link the group to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat.

''The Democrats and have overshot the runway on Petraeus by being mean, personal and un-American. An interest group now sets the terms of the debate for Speaker Pelosi and Leader Reid,'' said Republican strategist Scott Reed.

SHORING UP REPUBLICAN SUPPORT Bush, who talked with leaders of Congress at the White House yesterday, is expected to endorse Petraeus' recommendations in a speech to Americans this week.

The development left open the possibility that as many as 130,000 US troops could be in Iraq during the heat of next year's presidential campaign and still be there when the new president takes over in January 2009.

Sen Gordon Smith, the Oregon Republican who became a critic of the war late last year and said it might be ''criminal,'' said Petraeus had had an impact.

''I think he shored up support in the Republican conference and I don't think there is any firm date (for troop withdrawals) that's going to pass this place,'' Smith said.

Democratic leaders in Congress were discussing whether to push for an immediate timetable in a debate next week or to show more flexibility by setting a goal, but no firm date, for a transition period in Iraq.

''Our goal now is to highlight the fact that what he has proposed is a 'stay the course' strategy that will include keeping 130,000 troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future,'' said a senior Democratic congressional aide.

''They may think they've won a short-term victory but the question is, at what cost?'' the aide said.

Reuters SG GC1744

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