Iraq report shows only limited progress
By DAVID ESPO, AP Special Correspondent
Iraq has achieved only limited military and political progress toward a democratic society, the Bush administration said Thursday in a report that became prelude to a House vote on ordering a U.S. troop withdrawal by spring.
"The security situation in Iraq remains complex and extremely challenging" the report concluded. The economic picture is uneven, it said, and the government has not yet enacted vital political reconciliation legislation.
As many as 80 suicide bombers per month cross into the country from Syria, added the interim assessment, which is to be followed by Gen. David Petraeus' fuller accounting in September.
"I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must," President Bush said at a White House news conference at which he stressed the interim nature of the report.
Describing a document produced by his administration at Congress' insistence, he said there was satisfactory progress by the Iraqi government toward meeting eight of 18 so-called benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on eight more and mixed results on the others.
To his critics — including an increasing number of Republicans — he said bluntly, "I don't think Congress ought to be running the war. I think they ought to be funding the troops."
Democrats saw it differently.
A few hours after Bush's remarks, the House plunged into debate over legislation requiring the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops to begin within 120 days, and to be completed by April 1, 2008. The measure envisions a limited residual force to train Iraqis, protect U.S. assets and fight al-Qaida and other terrorists.
Passage of the measure was not in doubt — only the number of Republicans who might break with Bush and support a bill he has vowed to veto.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., set the tone. "After nearly five years of a failed policy in Iraq, we have a duty not just to voice our opposition, but to vote today to end the war," she said.
The 25-page administration report was issued in the fifth year of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 3,600 U.S. troops and is costing U.S. taxpayers an estimated $10 billion a month.
Bush announced last winter he was ordering thousands of additional troops to the war zone, but the full complement has only arrived in recent weeks. "The full surge in this respect has only just begun," the report said.
It warned of "tough fighting" during the summer as U.S. and Iraqi forces "seek to seize the initiative from early gains and shape conditions of longer-term stabilization."
The president sampled the report at his nationally televised session with reporters.
"Iraqis have provided the three brigades they promised for operations in and around Baghdad. And the Iraqi government is spending nearly $7.3 billion from its own funds this year to train, equip and modernize its forces," he said.
But in other areas, he added, they "have much more work to do. For example, they've not done enough to prepare for local elections or pass a law to share oil revenues."
The report was blunt at points and more opaque at others.
While Iraq has begun to show progress in providing services, "citizens nationwide complain about government corruption and the lack of essential services, such as electricity, fuel supply, sewer, water, health and sanitation."
At another point, it added, "The prerequisites for a successful militia disarmament program are not present."
In addition to citing a Syrian connection for terrorists, it also said Iran has continued to foster instability in Iraq.
It cited measured progress on the economic front. "Unemployment has eased slightly and inflation is currently abating," the report said. It omitted mention of a June 1 Pentagon report estimating an annual inflation rate at 33 percent and the Iraqi government estimate of joblessness at 17 percent.
In an evident jab at critics of Bush's war policies, the report also said progress toward political reconciliation was hampered by "increasing concern among Iraqi political leaders that the United States may not have a long term-commitment to Iraq."
Despite rising pressure from Republicans in Congress for a change in course, Bush was adamant.
"When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will (be) because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it'll be good politics," he said.
Before Thursday's house vote, GOP aides said they hoped to suffer only a few party defections, but the administration faced a more volatile situation in the Senate. There, three Republicans have already said they intend to vote for a separate withdrawal measure, and several others have signed on as supporters of a bipartisan bill to implement a series of changes recommended last winter by the Iraqi Study Group.
Even so, it appears the president's allies have the support to block a final Senate vote in a showdown expected next week.
If the report changed any minds in Congress, it was not immediately apparent.
"It is time for the president to listen to the American people and do what is necessary to protect this nation. That means admitting his Iraq policy has failed, working with the Democrats and Republicans in Congress on crafting a new way forward in Iraq and refocusing our collective efforts on defeating al-Qaida," said Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
But Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said Congress has already decided it will be September before the administration's strategy can be evaluated properly. "Certainly the young soldiers and Marines risking their lives today on the streets of Baghdad and Ramadi would agree — and they deserve our patience."
Thursday, July 12, 2007