By Peter Baker and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 8, 2007
President Bush's nominee to be war czar said yesterday that conditions in Iraq have not improved significantly despite the influx of U.S. troops in recent months and predicted that, absent major political reform, violence will continue to rage over the next year.
Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, tapped by Bush to serve as a new high-powered White House coordinator of the war, told senators at a confirmation hearing that Iraqi factions "have shown so far very little progress" toward the reconciliation necessary to stem the bloodshed. If that does not change, he said, "we're not likely to see much difference in the security situation" a year from now.
Lute's dour assessment mirrored the views of U.S. intelligence officials, who told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a closed session last month that trends in Iraq remain negative and that the prospect for political movement by the nation's feuding Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds appears marginal. The secret intelligence conclusions were disclosed during yesterday's hearing by Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and confirmed by a Republican official.
The conclusions largely tracked the findings of the last National Intelligence Estimate, released in January, before Bush announced his decision to send nearly 30,000 more troops to Iraq, suggesting that the intelligence community does not think the force buildup has changed the outlook nearly five months later. Bayh quoted a CIA expert on radical Islam as saying that "our presence in Iraq is creating more members of al-Qaeda than we are killing in Iraq," though it was unclear whether that came during the May 24 briefing.
The appraisals by Lute and intelligence officials underscore broader doubts in Washington about whether the Iraqi government can meet political goals set by Bush and Congress in the recently enacted legislation on war spending. The legislation threatens cuts in U.S. reconstruction aid if Iraqis do not meet those benchmarks, such as passing a new oil-distribution law and readmitting lower-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party into the government. The legislation requires progress reports from the administration in July and September.
As the president's point man on Iraq, Lute would be charged with helping to ensure that Iraqis can achieve those goals. But he expressed doubt about whether the Iraqis have the ability to change and whether the United States has the ability to force them to do so. "I have reservations about just how much leverage we can apply on a system that is not very capable right now," he said.
While insisting that incremental progress is being made, administration officials acknowledge that the benchmarks will be all but impossible to meet by the time progress reports are due to Congress.
"If the test is peace and reconciliation and flowers blooming by September, that will be hard to meet," said a senior administration official. At the least, the administration hopes to be able to demonstrate movement in the right direction.
During a recent visit to Washington, a senior Iraqi official said sectarian divides are deepening. "People may look for benchmarks, achievements, legislation here and there to look for progress," said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record and agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity. "This will not reflect the reality. This country is in deep, grave trouble. . . . If anyone expects problems to be fixed by September 2007 or 2008, they will be in for a bad surprise."
There has been little progress in four key political areas. At the top of the list is revisiting the Iraqi constitution that was approved in an October 2005 referendum, to better balance power among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The project was handed over to a legislative committee, which did not meet a May 15 deadline.
The new deadline is the end of this month. But "there are still gaping holes . . . and fundamental questions about power sharing" that remain unresolved, said Brian Katulis, a Clinton National Security Council staff member. Among them is how the country will be divided into administrative regions -- the number and boundaries of which will affect the distribution of political and economic power -- and the status of oil-rich Kirkuk, claimed by the Kurdish regional government.
A separate committee is working on legislation governing the distribution of Iraq's oil wealth. Although a framework law was agreed to by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government this year, it has not been submitted to the parliament. Implementing legislation to determine how revenue is collected and divided among the regions remains incomplete and a subject of heated dispute.
Also, agreement on provincial elections has moved slowly with the appointment of a new national electoral commission. Minority Sunnis, many of whom boycotted the last round of elections, hope to regain political power, and the majority Shiites are reluctant to cede power.
Finally, Iraqis have made the least progress among the four areas on a de-Baathification law. "It's an extremely difficult issue," the senior U.S. official said. "If you push it too fast in an environment like we have right now just to meet a benchmark, you can risk a very extreme reaction" among Shiites who remain adamantly opposed.
Lute, a career Army officer who serves as the operations officer at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been a vocal internal advocate of more political measures, arguing that there is no military solution to Iraq. At his hearing yesterday, Lute acknowledged that during a review of U.S. policy on Iraq last winter, he had privately expressed skepticism of Bush's "surge" proposal unless matched with more robust efforts by the Iraqis and other U.S. agencies.
"Where are we today?" he asked. "Not where any of us would like."
But he sounded open to other ideas if the troop buildup does not succeed, telling Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that withdrawing some U.S. forces should be considered. Lute agreed that a large presence in Iraq could reinforce a "dependency syndrome."
Even a leading Republican pressed Lute for more progress, citing the deaths of U.S. soldiers and rejecting the argument that the Iraqi government has been in place for only a year. "Wake up," said Sen. John W. Warner (Va.). "We're paying a heavy price for them to establish this government."
Although senators from both parties praised Lute and made clear they plan to confirm him, Democrats took issue with Bush's decision to create the post more than four years into the war. Lute would serve as an assistant to the president who would brief Bush every day and manage the U.S. government's civilian and military efforts in Iraq. Democrats said that is proof that national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley is not doing his job.
"He should be fired, because, frankly, if he's not capable of being the individual responsible for those duties and they pass it on to someone else, then why is he there?" Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said.
Lute said Hadley would not be cut out of the loop: "I see my role as Steve Hadley's teammate on Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) also questioned Lute about Vice President Cheney's role. Lute responded that Cheney is "an important participant in policy development" and that "I'll be working with the vice president and his staff."
"Well," Clinton replied, "I wish you well. Because certainly that's turned out to be a difficult situation for many."