Correction to This Article
The print edition of this article incorrectly referred to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as president. This version has been corrected.

Administration Shaving Yardstick for Iraq Gains

By Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 8, 2007

The Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals or timelines President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy, according to senior administration officials closely involved in the matter. As they prepare an interim report due next week, officials are marshaling alternative evidence of progress to persuade Congress to continue supporting the war.

In a preview of the assessment it must deliver to Congress in September, the administration will report that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province are turning against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in growing numbers; that sectarian killings were down in June; and that Iraqi political leaders managed last month to agree on a unified response to the bombing of a major religious shrine, officials said.

Those achievements are markedly different from the benchmarks Bush set when he announced his decision to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq. More troops, Bush said, would enable the Iraqis to proceed with provincial elections this year and pass a raft of power-sharing legislation. In addition, he said, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki planned to "take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November."

Congress expanded on Bush's benchmarks, writing 18 goals into law as part of the war-funding measure it passed in the spring.

In addition to the elections, legislation and security measures Bush outlined in January, Congress added demands that the Iraqi government complete a revision of its constitution and pass a law on de-Baathification and additional laws on militia disarmament, regional boundaries and other issues.

Lawmakers asked for an interim report in July and set a Sept. 15 deadline for a comprehensive assessment by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador. Now, as U.S. combat deaths have escalated, violence has spread far beyond Baghdad, and sectarian political divides have deepened, the administration must persuade lawmakers to use more flexible, less ambitious standards.

But anything short of progress on the original benchmarks is unlikely to appease the growing ranks of disaffected Republican lawmakers who are urging Bush to develop a new strategy. Although Republicans held the line this year against Democratic efforts to set a timeline for withdrawing troops, several influential GOP senators have broken with Bush in recent days, charging that his plan is failing and calling for troop redeployments starting as early as the spring.

According to several senior officials who agreed to discuss the situation in Iraq only on the condition of anonymity, the political goals that seemed achievable earlier this year remain hostage to the security situation. If the extreme violence were to decline, Iraq's political paralysis might eventually subside. "If they are arguing, accusing, gridlocking," one official said, "none of that would mean the country is falling apart if it was against the backdrop of a stabilizing security situation."

From a military perspective, however, the political stalemate is hampering security. "The security progress we're making is real," said a senior military intelligence official in Baghdad. "But it's only in part of the country, and there's not enough political progress to get us over the line in September."

In their September report, sources said, Petraeus and Crocker intend to emphasize how security and politics are intertwined, and how progress in either will be incremental. In that context, the administration will offer new measures of progress to justify continuing the war effort.

"There are things going on that we never could have foreseen," said one official, who noted that the original benchmarks set by Bush six months ago -- and endorsed by the Maliki government -- are not only unachievable in the short term but also irrelevant to changing the conditions in Iraq.

As they work to put together the reports due to Congress next week and in September, these officials and others close to Iraq policy recognize that the administration is boxed in by measurements that were enshrined in U.S. law in May.

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