By Karen DeYoung and Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 12, 2007
A widely anticipated White House report on Iraq, set for release today, argues that the Baghdad government has made "satisfactory" progress toward nearly half of the political and military goals sought by Congress, while acknowledging that an equal number remain "not satisfactory," an administration official said yesterday.
The report, ordered by lawmakers as an interim assessment of President Bush's troop-increase strategy, identifies some positive movement in eight of the 18 congressional benchmarks, most of them related to military issues; finds insufficient improvement in eight others, mainly related to political reconciliation; and judges mixed results in the final two, the official said.
The administration's assessment comes the day after U.S. intelligence experts offered an overwhelmingly negative view of military and political conditions in Iraq, saying that Iraqi forces will remain incapable of taking charge of security for years to come and that deepening sectarian political divides remain the largest impediment to progress.
On Capitol Hill, where the Senate is debating Bush's Iraq strategy, an early vote on legislation designed to tie the president's hands fell victim to a Republican filibuster. But two more lawmakers, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), joined the growing ranks of Republicans who have broken with the administration, saying they would support Democratic efforts to begin U.S. troop reductions.
National security adviser Stephen J. Hadley met with key Republican lawmakers yesterday in an effort to stop the defections, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice placed phone calls. At least eight GOP senators have now said they favor one or more of several proposed amendments to a defense policy bill that would require an early troop drawdown. Most of those senators are up for reelection in 2008.
Bush met at the White House with Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), both supporters of his policy who just returned from Iraq, and with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).
The upcoming report is the first of two -- the second will come in September -- that Congress ordered the White House to produce when it passed war funding legislation he requested this spring. The legislation said that if Bush could not certify progress on each of the 18 goals, he would have to offer changes in strategy or risk a reduction in funding.
The White House originally envisioned today's report as a midterm update, but it has taken on greater political importance in recent days as senior Senate Republicans have bolted. The report -- drafted by the National Security Council with input from the Pentagon, the State Department, Iraq commander David H. Petraeus, Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and other parts of the administration -- evaluates the performance of the Iraqi government in the six months since Bush announced he was sending nearly 30,000 additional troops there. His overall goal, the president said at the time, was to stem escalating violence in order to give the Iraqi government more space and time to achieve political reconciliation. He outlined several specific political and security goals, which Congress later expanded and Bush signed into law.
Officials stressed that the report does not claim that any of the benchmarks have been fully met, only that in some cases there has been forward movement. "It divides about 50-50," said an administration official who was not authorized to speak about the assessment on the record before Bush releases it.
For instance, the report describes as "not satisfactory" the Iraqi government's progress toward enacting a law governing the distribution of oil revenue, an area of deep division among Iraqi factions. But it says the government, as promised, sent additional military brigades to Baghdad to help bolster security.
The findings will also cite what the White House considers positive indicators outside the original benchmarks, such as the cooperation between U.S. forces and tribal sheiks in Anbar province against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq, a recent drop in sectarian killings in Baghdad, and signs of normal life in the capital, such as amusement parks, markets and professional soccer leagues.
Aides expect Bush to speak publicly about the report, which runs about 25 pages, and to argue that the additional U.S. troops need to be given more time because the last of them arrived just a few weeks ago. They said he may also use the opportunity to discuss his intent to draw down forces and redefine the mission of the remaining U.S. troops if the increase improves security.
White House officials said they tried to craft a candid report, while recognizing that supporters and opponents would find evidence in it to bolster their views.
Meanwhile, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, senior intelligence officials said there has been no meaningful positive change in Iraq since January, when a starkly pessimistic National Intelligence Estimate warned that even if security improved, violent sectarian divisions threatened to destroy the government.
Thomas Fingar, the deputy director of national intelligence and chief of the National Intelligence Council, which wrote the January estimate, said that assessment did not change. While the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has made "halting efforts to bridge the divisions and restore commitment to a unified country . . . it has made limited progress on key legislation," such as the oil revenue law and a range of power-sharing measures.
"Communal violence and scant common ground between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds continues to polarize politics," Fingar said yesterday. Even the majority-Shiite bloc that Maliki heads, he said, "does not present a unified front" and has continued to deteriorate in recent months. Meanwhile, the provision of essential services seen as crucial in building support for the government, including electricity and oil production, remains below prewar levels, he said. Some have declined over the past six months.
"The analysis that the community made in January . . . appears to be borne out by events since then," he said. "That assessment focused on the imperative for reducing levels of violence in the country as a prerequisite for beginning to restore confidence among the competing, fractured body politic and the groups in the political system." While the increase in U.S. troops is "having an effect, it has not yet had a sufficient effect on the violence, in my judgment, to move the country to a place that the serious obstacles to reconciliation can be overcome," Fingar said.
"It will be difficult and time-consuming to bridge the political gulf when violence levels are reduced, and they have not yet been reduced significantly," he said, in what he called his "most optimistic projection."
Retired Maj. Gen. John R. Landry, also a member of the intelligence council, said there have been some improvements in the Iraqi army, although much less so with the Iraqi police, who are charged with holding urban areas. But Iraqi security forces remain "ridden with a certain degree of sectarian infiltration" and lack the logistics and support capabilities that would allow them to take over from U.S. forces in most of the country, he said.
Asked by Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) whether the Iraqi forces were in a position to bring "some sort of successful closure" to the U.S. troop presence, Landry said that was "not likely."
Iraqi military leadership and capability will require "years to develop, not months," he said.
Fingar, Landry and several other senior intelligence officials spoke about Iraq in the context of an overall global assessment that highlighted international threats. Referring to al-Qaeda's plans for Iraq, Fingar said that the Pakistan-based organization headed by Osama bin Laden hoped to use it as a launching pad for attacks in the Middle East.
Asked about the threat of an Iranian takeover of Iraq, which Bush has frequently cited as a possible outcome if U.S forces withdraw, Fingar said "it will be difficult for Iran to hold Iraq in its sway." While many Iraqi Shiites have close ties with Iran, he said, they have very different views about governance and religion.