President George W Bush, lawmakers, members of the US military and veterans were locked on Saturday in an escalating political war of words over whether to reduce US troop levels in Iraq.
With just weeks before a key on September 15 progress report on the unpopular war, Bush faced mounting pressure to announce that he would bring home at least some of the roughly 160,000 US troops in Iraq.
A grim formal report from the 16 US intelligence agencies found that Iraq's political leaders are "unable to govern" effectively but warned that a drawdown of US forces could dramatically increase sectarian violence.
Bush's Democratic critics have redoubled their calls for him to pull US forces out of Iraq, while he has accused his political foes of wanting to "pull the rug out" from under US troops on the front lines.
And the White House has set the emotionally loaded date of September 11 for the top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, to testify to Congress about the war.
The outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, denied a report that he was poised to urge Bush to cut US force levels in Iraq by nearly half next year to ease the strain the war has placed on the military.
The Los Angeles Times, citing administration and military officials, said Pace was likely to advise Bush that maintaining more than 100,000 of the 162,000 troops in Iraq through 2008 would place severe strains on the military.
Such a recommendation, which the Times said would be offered privately, would highlight differences within the military and the government over Iraq, eight months after Bush's "surge" policy boosted troop levels by 30,000.
"The story is wrong. It is speculative. I have not made nor decided on any recommendation yet," Pace, who steps down in September, said in a statement.
In an earlier statement, the general said: "The Joint Chiefs and I always review a wide range of options on any issue."
"I take very seriously my duty to provide the best military advice to the president. I provide that advice privately to the president."
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe predicted a media feeding frenzy "about what different people are recommending, what they're not recommending more troops, less troops, stay the same."
Meanwhile, a senior US commander said any reduction of US troops in his area of Iraq this year would be "a giant step backwards," allowing insurgents to regain sanctuaries wrested from them in hard fighting.
Army Major General Rick Lynch, who commands a division in volatile central Iraq in Baghdad's southern outskirts, said Iraqi security forces will not be ready to take over security in the area before the spring or summer of 2008.
Lynch's comments implicitly confirm White House officials' warnings that the "surge" will fail to reach at least one key benchmark: handing Iraqis the responsibility for the security of their country by November 1.
Bush has given no sign that he will bend to pressure to pull out, and planned a speech next week to revive his battered vision of a democratic Iraq inspiring reformers across the Middle East, officials said.
The Washington Post reported Saturday that the White House hopes to keep in place its existing military strategy and troop levels in Iraq even after the report by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker.
But the White House suffered a symbolic blow on Thursday when influential Republican Senator John Warner, fresh from a trip to Iraq, called on Bush to announce on September 15 "the first step in the withdrawal of our forces."
The move would send a signal to the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and nations in the region that the US commitment to Iraq is not open ended, said Warner.
"You do not want to lose the momentum, but certainly in 160,000-plus, say, 5,000 could begin to redeploy and be home to their families and loved ones no later than Christmas of this year," he said.
Bush's Republican allies in Congress meanwhile highlighted calls from two Democrats, newly returned from Iraq, to give the US "surge" more time to work.
And there were even dueling editorials from people who have served in Iraq: On Sunday, seven soldiers ending their 15-month deployment broke sharply with Bush's strategy. On Friday, seven war veterans argued in the Bush-friendly Weekly Standard magazine that it needs more time to work.