By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
The House will hold hearings next week on two key reports assessing political and military conditions in Iraq, jump-starting the debate over President Bush's strategy even before long-awaited testimony by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker, due the following week.
A completed 70-page report by the Government Accountability Office, to be delivered to Congress next Tuesday, paints a bleak picture of prospects for Iraqi political reconciliation, according to administration officials who have seen it. The second report, by an independent commission of military experts, is being drafted. But a scorecard on the Iraqi security forces released yesterday by an adviser to the group concluded that the Iraqis are years away from taking over significant responsibility from U.S. combat forces.
The two reports -- and hearings on them in the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees -- will set a largely negative backdrop for Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker, who are expected to testify together in a joint hearing before the two House committees and in a separate session in the Senate. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has objected to a Pentagon proposal that they appear on Sept. 11, a Pelosi spokesman said, and the exact date remains under negotiation.
Administration officials said yesterday that the Petraeus-Crocker testimony will closely follow the National Intelligence Estimate judgments released last week, which predicted continued political deterioration in Iraq but cited "measurable but uneven improvements" in the security situation.
The NIE, requested by the White House Iraq coordinator, Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, in preparation for the testimony, met with resistance from U.S. military officials in Baghdad, according to a senior U.S. military intelligence officer there. Presented with a draft of the conclusions, Petraeus succeeded in having the security judgments softened to reflect improvements in recent months, the official said.
Bush continued his efforts to frame the debate yesterday, congratulating Iraqi politicians on an agreement they announced Sunday in Baghdad. The accord reached by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish representatives "reflects their commitment to work together for the benefit of all Iraqis," Bush said in a visit to Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.
The agreement called for the release of thousands of detainees being held without charge, reform of a law barring members of Saddam Hussein's party from government jobs, regulation of the oil industry and provincial elections. Those elements are among a set of congressionally mandated benchmarks, and all require approval of Iraq's parliament. No details of the accord were released, and Sunni politicians expressed skepticism yesterday that Maliki's Shiite-dominated government would push for enactment of the measures.
Bush is scheduled to deliver today the second of two speeches designed to describe Iraq as caught between two forces that threaten U.S. security -- Sunni extremism, personified by al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Taliban, and the Shiite extremism of Iran and its Mideast proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. The president plans to tell an American Legion convention in Reno, Nev., that an increase in U.S. combat forces in Iraq begun early last spring has been operational only for 75 days, a senior administration official said, yet gains are apparent. "It's understandable that political progress has been slower than security," the official said.
In a speech last week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush compared the Iraq conflict to the Vietnam War, arguing that a U.S. troop withdrawal would lead to widespread death and suffering as he said it did in Southeast Asia three decades ago.
After the Petraeus-Crocker testimony, Bush will deliver his own written report to Congress assessing progress toward 18 congressionally mandated political and security benchmarks in Iraq. An interim report in July painted a mixed picture, and the White House is depending heavily this time on Petraeus to head off calls from congressional Democrats, and a number of influential Republicans, to begin withdrawing U.S. troops and turning security over to the Iraqi military.
In its benchmark legislation last spring, Congress arranged for its own security report, appointing a commission headed by retired Marine Gen. James Jones to assess the Iraqi forces. Strategic and military expert Anthony Cordesman, a commission adviser, previewed that assessment in a report yesterday saying it will be years before the Iraqi army and police forces will be capable of taking over.
Progress was slowed this year as U.S. forces increased their own operations and turned attention away from Iraqi training and force modernization, Cordesman wrote. Although the Iraqi army has shown improvement, he said, corruption and sectarianism continue in police forces. White House and military projections of a timetable for transition from U.S. troops to Iraqi security forces have been often revised in recent years and have proved unrealistic, he said.
Staff writers Thomas E. Ricks and Robin Wright in Washington and Michael Abramowitz, who is traveling with the president, contributed to this report.