By Karen DeYoung and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
A bleak portrait of the political and security situation in Iraq released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office sparked sharp protests from the top U.S. military command in Baghdad, whose officials described it as flawed and "factually incorrect."
The controversy followed last-minute changes made in the final draft of the report after the Defense Department maintained that its conclusions were too harsh and insisted that some of the information it contained -- such as the extent of a fall in the number of Iraqi army units capable of operating without U.S. assistance -- should not appear in the final, unclassified version.
The GAO rejected several changes proposed by the Pentagon and concluded that Iraq had failed to meet all but two of nine security goals Congress had set as part of a list of 18 benchmarks of progress. But grades for two of the seven unmet security benchmarks -- the elimination of havens for militia forces and the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades to assist the U.S. security plan in Baghdad -- were recast to reflect partial progress. Two other benchmarks, one political and one economic, were also described as "partially met."
The report, published days before the Bush administration's own progress report on Iraq, said that only one of eight political goals -- safeguarding minority rights in the Iraqi parliament -- had been met. It found little if any substantive movement on key legislation, including measures to clarify the distribution of oil revenue, schedule provincial elections and change de-Baathification laws.
Comptroller General David Walker, who heads the GAO, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that "the least progress has been made on the political front." Fifteen of 37 cabinet ministers have "withdrawn support" for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and serious problems remain in other ministries, Walker said.
"Given the fact that significant progress has not been made in improving the living conditions of the Iraqis on a day-to-day basis with regard to things that all citizens care about -- safe streets, clean water, reliable electricity, a variety of other basic things," he concluded, "I think you'd have to say it's dysfunctional -- the government is dysfunctional."
Democratic leaders jumped on the GAO's conclusions to bolster their calls for a new strategy in Iraq, and Republican leaders dismissed the report as dated and politically insignificant.
"Today's GAO report confirms that the president's Iraq strategy is simply not working," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) said Pentagon officials had told Republican leaders that the GAO had relied on outdated information. Because the agency was told simply to assess whether the benchmarks had been met, the GAO was set up to deliver a negative report, Blunt said. He added that lawmakers were far more interested in the assessment coming next week from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker.
Rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats, meanwhile, are redoubling efforts to find bipartisan cooperation that could pressure the administration to begin bringing troops home. Six House Republicans and five Democrats released a letter yesterday to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio), asking them "to put an end to the political in-fighting over the war in Iraq and allow the House to unite behind a bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home."
Breaking with the GOP leadership, the Republicans -- Michael N. Castle (Del.), Charlie Dent (Pa.), Phil English (Pa.), Scott Garrett (N.J.), Jim Gerlach (Pa.) and Tom Petri (Wis.) -- said they saw no reason to wait for testimony by Petraeus and Crocker.
"While we are hopeful that their report will show progress, we should not wait any longer to come together in support of a responsible post-surge strategy to safely bring our troops home to their families," the letter said.
The letter might be only the start of a rebellion against the leaders of both parties. Another version of the letter circulating on Capitol Hill demands a House vote on bipartisan legislation that would give the president 60 days to present to Congress a plan to begin withdrawing troops.
Walker, the GAO chief, denied that substantive changes in the report had been made under pressure. "The only thing we really did was we went to a 'partially met' on a couple, on one of which I'd made the judgment . . . independently of [military] comments; the other of which they provided us additional information that we did not have previously," he said in congressional testimony.
The GAO concluded that all forms of violence remain high in Iraq -- causing senior military officials to complain that the report did not consider statistics for August, when, they said, trends in sectarian violence and the performance of the Iraqi security forces improved.
"They use the end of July as the data and evidentiary cutoff and therefore are not taking into account any gains in any of the benchmarks that may have become more clear throughout August," one official said.
The military officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Petraeus will give the official military position in testimony Monday, took particular exception to the GAO statement that a drop in sectarian attacks could not be confirmed. The final version of the report softened the draft's initial conclusion that "U.S. agencies differ on whether such violence has been reduced," saying instead that "measuring such violence may be difficult since the perpetrator's intent is not clearly known."
One military official called even the revised version "factually incorrect," saying that "we absolutely disagree with their characterization of sectarian violence." Such attacks have fallen significantly this year, he said.
But Walker said the GAO received different assessments of the levels of violence. The report, he noted, recommended that the administration reflect such divergence in its own reports. It was unclear whether sectarian attacks had dropped, he said, "since it is difficult to measure intentions and there are various measures of sectarian violence from different sources. . . . Some show increases, some show decreases, and some show inconsistent patterns."
Walker said the GAO consulted with the military until Thursday. "We asked for, but did not receive, the information through the end of August," he said. "But we obtained their views for where the situation was . . . as of August 30th."
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.