White House: Iraq lags on benchmarks - Yahoo! NewsWhite House: Iraq lags on benchmarks
By JENNIFER LOVEN, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON - The White House told Congress Friday that Iraqi leaders have gained little new ground toward meeting key military and political goals, a discouraging assessment a day after President Bush said that progress justifies a large continued U.S. military presence there.
The report underscored the difficulty of Bush's argument that American sacrifice was creating space for political progress by Iraqis.
The administration's first required report on benchmarks, in July, showed the Iraqi government was making satisfactory progress toward meeting eight of 18 goals and unsatisfactory progress on eight others. Two others couldn't be rated for performance.
The follow up report to Congress on Friday concluded that Iraqis have done enough to move only one benchmark allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to hold government positions from the unsatisfactory to satisfactory column.
That movement was due to a pact made last month among leading Iraqi politicians from all major sects. Iraqi officials have announced similar deals in the past only to have them fall apart.
"The overarching goal of de-Baathification reform is political accommodation between the Shia and Sunni communities," the report said. "The leaders' agreement combined with the return of former Baathists to civic life is a significant step in that regard."
Bush officials said there hadn't been nearly enough time between the July report and now just two months for more improvement. White House press secretary Tony Snow said in a statement accompanying the report that there have been other, equally important developments, including passage of a budget, the sharing of oil revenues among the provinces even without legislation and local reconciliation efforts that could trickle up to Baghdad.
"These are precisely the 'effects' the benchmarks were intended to produce, even if the formal benchmarks themselves have not been met," Snow said.
In a separate report, the State Department concluded Friday that religious freedom has sharply deteriorated in Iraq over the past year because of the insurgency and secular violence.
The department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom found that worshippers of all faiths are targeted for attacks and the violence is not confined to the well-known rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In that 18-minute address, the president sought to mollify war opponents by ordering U.S. troop levels to drop gradually to a point they were already slated to reach. He said, however, that the reductions would start seven months sooner than scheduled, with 5,700 U.S. forces to be home by Christmas instead of leaving Iraq beginning in the spring as originally planned.
Four more combat brigades would pull out of Iraq as currently scheduled by July.
This would largely reverse the combat troop buildup Bush ordered in January, which boosted U.S. troop strength to 168,000, the highest level of the war. Under the plan, troop levels would be back to around 130,000 by next summer, close to where they were before the buildup.
Democrats called Bush's modest approach unacceptable.
"The president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in the Democrat's televised response.
When the president announced the so-called surge, he said it was conditioned on the Iraqis also stepping up though he attached no consequences if they did not. Their obligations included such previously promised but unmet tasks as sending more and more capable Iraqi fighters into Baghdad, taking on Shiite militias to which the Shiite-led government is sometimes considered beholden, investing heavily in reconstruction projects that help Sunnis as well as Shiites, and enacting several pieces of legislation aimed at promoting reconciliation between warring sects.
The president later agreed to allow lawmakers to codify such benchmarks into law. Since then, the administration has sought to downplay the significance of the benchmarks, and did so again as it transmitted its latest assessment to a Democratic-controlled Capitol Hill bent on forcing a more dramatic reduction in troop levels.
"What is important is the overall trajectory which, under our present strategy, has begun to stabilize and turn upward, compared to the deteriorating trajectory seen over the course of 2006," the report said optimistically.
The president's speech marked only the latest shift in direction and rationale and packaging for a war that has lasted 4 1/2 years and cost a half trillion dollars and nearly 3,800 American lives.
Bush was having lunch with Marines Friday to reinforce his message that the U.S. is winning and that continuing the fight is crucial to American security. He was traveling to a Marine base in Quantico, Va., just outside Washington. Vice President Dick Cheney was scheduled to deliver two Iraq speeches Friday, in Michigan at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum and at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Democrats, still unable to muster enough votes to force an end to the war, hope to win veto-proof support for legislation that would require a narrower mission for a presumably smaller U.S. force. They would shift to only training Iraq's military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists.
Bush said in Thursday night's speech that the U.S. engagement will stretch beyond his presidency. But he hinted further reductions were possible before he leaves office, saying the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker will report again in March.
"The more successful we are, the more American troops can return home," the president said.
He said his decisions would be guided by the principle of "return on success" the rhetorical replacement for his oft-repeated promise that coalition forces would only "stand down" as Iraqi troops "stand up."
But his speech was accompanied by another grim and dispiriting piece of news. A prominent figure in a local alliance with U.S. troops against al-Qaida was assasinated in Anbar Province. It was a sharp blow to Bush's frequent celebration of military gains in that region as a model for the rest of the country.
Despite the death of Sunni sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, whom Bush met on a surprise visit to Anbar last week, Bush said the region shows what can happen across Iraq.
It's enough to make you dizzy.
What are you looking at, sugar-tits? - Mel Gibson
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