WASHINGTON - An independent assessment concluding that Iraq has made little political progress in recent months despite an influx of US troops drew fierce objections from the White House on Thursday and provided fresh ammunition for Democrats who want to bring troops home.
A resident stands near a burnt vehicle as it is towed away from the site of a car bomb attack in Baghdad, August 29, 2007. [AP]
The political wrangling came days before the report was to be officially released and while most lawmakers were still out of town for the August recess, reflecting the high stakes involved for both sides in the Iraq war debate. President Bush, who planned to meet Friday at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is nearing a decision on a way forward in Iraq while Congress planned another round of votes this fall to end the war.
A draft report by the Government Accountability Office concluded Iraq has satisfied three of 18 benchmarks set by Congress and partially met two others, a senior administration official said Thursday. None of those are the high-profile political issues such as passage of a national oil revenue sharing law that the Bush administration has said are critical to Iraq's future.
The State Department, Pentagon and White House dispute some GAO findings, including the conclusion that Iraq has only partially met tests involving its budget process and legislation dealing with semiautonomous regions in the large, multiethnic country, two officials said.
Administration officials also disputed that Iraq has failed to provide three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations or to ensure that the security plan will not provide a safe haven for outlaws.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations that included lengthy meetings Thursday at the White House. The GAO may alter some of its findings in response to administration arguments, one official said.
Administration officials also said the draft report is unrealistically harsh because it assigned pass-or-fail grades to each benchmark.
The GAO found that Iraq had fully met requirements to:
- Establish political, media, economic, and services committees in support of the Baghdad security plan. That plan involves many of the 30,000 US troops Bush sent to Iraq this year.
- Establish joint security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.
- Ensure the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.
Bush has suggested he intends to stick to his Iraq strategy, but in his meeting Friday at the Pentagon he's expected to hear some of the Joint Chiefs express deep concern at the long-term impact on the military of maintaining a heavy troop presence in Iraq in 2008 and beyond. Now, there are more than 160,000 troops in Iraq, the most since the war began in 2003.
The Army and the Marine Corps have shouldered most of the burden, creating strains that service leaders fear could hurt their recruiting as well as their preparedness for other military emergencies. The Joint Chiefs are not, however, expected to urge Bush to withdraw from Iraq entirely as many Democrats want.
"It is clear that every objective expert keeps providing the American public with the same facts: that the president's flawed Iraq strategy is failing to deliver what it needs to - a political solution for Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
GAO officials briefed congressional staff behind closed doors, promising an unvarnished assessment when an unclassified version of the report is publicly released on Sept. 4.
"The real question that people have is: What's going on in Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact?" said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "The answer is yes. There's no question about it."
But Democrats and even some Republicans say military progress made in recent weeks is not the issue. If Baghdad politicians refuse to reach a lasting political settlement that can influence the sectarian-fueled violence, the increase in troops is useless, they said.
The Pentagon and State Department provided detailed and lengthy objections to the findings by the congressional auditors.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Thursday that after reviewing a draft of the GAO report, policy officials "made some factual corrections" and "offered some suggestions on a few of the actual grades" assigned by the GAO.
"We have provided the GAO with information which we believe will lead them to conclude that a few of the benchmark grades should be upgraded from 'not met' to 'met,'" Morrell said.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said the GAO should at least note progress made when ruling that Iraq has failed to meet a specific benchmark.
Democrats are expected to try to use money needed to support the war as leverage to bring troops home. The Pentagon has requested $147 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan for the 2007 budget year, which begins October 1. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday suggested Bush should not be asking Congress to approve "tens of billions more dollars" when independent voices like GAO find the Iraqis are failing to reach a political accord.
"With the president continuing to stay the course in Iraq, Republicans will have to decide whether they will continue to vote with him or join Democrats and the vast majority of Americans who are demanding a new direction in Iraq and refocusing America's efforts on fighting the real threats of terrorism around the world," said Pelosi, D-Calif.
The GAO report is one of several assessments called for in May legislation that funded the war: Retired Gen. James Jones briefs Congress next week on his assessment of the Iraqi security forces; Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, testify the week of Sept. 10. Bush will deliver his own progress report by Sept. 15.
Bush is meeting Friday with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a secure conference room at the Pentagon known as "the Tank."
Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, director of operational planning for the Joint Chiefs, told reporters this would be the Joint Chiefs' opportunity to "provide the president with their unvarnished recommendations and their assessments of current operations."
It did not appear that the session was intended to work out a consensus military view on how long Bush should maintain the US troop buildup in Iraq or how soon to transition to Iraqi control of security.
Bush will be hearing from Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Adm. William Fallon, the senior commander of US forces in the Middle East; and top commanders in Baghdad.