Reports of Progress In Iraq Challenged

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By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

President Bush on Tuesday cited "encouraging signs" of military and political progress in Iraq as his new strategy gets underway. On Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice noted that "things are going reasonably well." And on Thursday, Rice's special coordinator for Iraq, David M. Satterfield, described a "dramatic decrease" in sectarian attacks in Baghdad since Bush's plan was announced in January.

But a number of analysts and critics said this week that some of those signs indicate less progress than the administration has suggested. Sectarian attacks in Baghdad are down at the moment, but the deaths of Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops have increased outside the capital. Though Iraqi leaders have agreed on a new framework law for oil resources, the details of how the oil revenue will be divided among competing Iraqi groups remain unresolved.

"If I were the president, I'd probably seize on every encouraging sign," said Anthony H. Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As an analyst, that isn't what we do."

Bush prefaced his report, given in a speech to the American Legion, by saying that it is too early to judge success. Others have added similar caveats. "I think people have been badly burned by letting hopes outride analysis" in the past, said one senior administration official, "and there is going to be a genuinely careful look at everything before saying it." Though there are positive indicators, he said, "right now there is no trend."

The administration is under public and congressional pressure to justify the troops and the money it says the new Iraq strategy requires, and Bush is anxious to show that events are vindicating his strategy. The deployment of 21,500 additional troops has already begun, even as Congress debates proposals to withdraw U.S. forces and begins considering the president's request for $100 billion in supplemental funds for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars this spring. The administration also plans to seek $145 billion more in October -- over and above its defense budget request of nearly half a trillion dollars for fiscal 2008.

Some of the president's assertions were spot-on, according to analysts and U.S. military officials. U.S. and Iraqi forces have, as Bush said, reported recent seizures of caches of conventional weapons and bombs.

At times, however, Bush's assessment appeared less than fully accurate. "The Iraqi government," the president said, "has completed the deployment of three additional Iraqi Army brigades to the capital. They said they were going to employ three brigades, and they did." But a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad said this week that two Iraqi brigades and one battalion of a third have arrived in Baghdad. Two of the five new U.S. brigades committed under the new strategy have also arrived.

Bush's report that "Iraqi and U.S. forces have rounded up more than 700 people affiliated with Shia extremists" appears to have little to do with the new strategy. The number is "based on captures . . . since July 2006," the military official said. Bush first reported the same roundup -- citing 600 captures -- last fall.

The administration's past rhetoric on Iraq -- from "Mission Accomplished" in spring 2003 to the "Strategy for Victory in Iraq" in the fall of 2005 and last summer's "Plan Baghdad" -- has left it open to questions.

"I think people would be more sympathetic . . . if he hadn't spent the last four years in a variety of ways exaggerating, hyping and not being clear about the facts," said a senior Democratic congressional staffer who was not authorized to speak on the record. "Now he's saying the sky isn't falling, and people don't believe it."

If violence is down in Baghdad, analysts said, it is likely because the Shiite militias operating there are waiting out the buildup in U.S. troops, nearly all of whom are being deployed in the capital. At the same time, Sunni insurgents have escalated their operations elsewhere.

As Bush spoke on Tuesday, at least 118 Shiite pilgrims were killed in attacks across central Iraq on the eve of one of Shiite Islam's most sacred holidays. The attacks came the day after nine U.S. troops were killed by roadside bombs outside the capital. On Wednesday, at least 75 more Iraqi civilians and two U.S. soldiers were killed in bomb attacks.

On the political front, Bush hailed the Council of Ministers' agreement on a framework law recognizing that Iraq's oil resources belong to all Iraqis -- Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. But three key measures for dividing the oil revenue among the provinces, reorganizing the state oil company and regulating contracts with foreign companies have yet to be drafted, said Timothy Carney, the administration's economic coordinator for Iraq, in a Baghdad news conference yesterday. These measures must be approved by the government and the parliament, which is "going to take a few months," Carney said.

The administration has touted its new leadership team in Iraq, but only half of it is in place. In the absence of the new ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, who is due in Baghdad at the end of this month, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, held his first news conference there on Thursday.

Petraeus cited the captured weapons and the decreased violence hailed in Washington. "At the same time, tragically, there have been violent, sensational attacks," Petraeus said. "I have now served in Iraq for nearly 2 1/2 years. There have been plenty of ups and downs during that time -- periods of optimism and periods of frustration."


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