- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 15, 2007

A White House status report on Iraq yesterday said the Iraqi government has made some progress since July on benchmarks for political reconciliation, but spotlighted continuing sectarian meddling with the military and national police by politicians.

Hours after the report was submitted to Congress, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said he hopes continued progress in Iraq will allow the U.S. to follow President Bush’s withdrawal plan of roughly 30,000 troops from Iraq by next summer with the pullout of an equal number by the end of 2008.

Such a troop drawdown would reduce the U.S. military presence in Iraq from its current number of 168,000 to about 100,000 a little over a year from now.

The White House report, meanwhile, said the biggest gains in sectarian reconciliation in Iraq have come at the local level, while the central government has lagged behind.

“Political progress at the national level has still been disappointing,” the report said.

Yet the report argued that despite the Iraqi parliament’s failure to pass key legislation, the government is headed in the right direction.

“The objectives of such laws are in some ways already being achieved,” the report said, pointing to progress in oil-revenue sharing, empowerment of local governments and the reintegration of former Ba’ath Party officials into army and government jobs.

“These are precisely the ‘effects’ the benchmarks were intended to produce, even if the formal benchmarks themselves have not been met,” said the report, which was mandated by Congress in its supplemental war funding bill last spring.

Yet Mr. Bush said yesterday he “expect the Iraqi government to enhance national reconciliation through the passage of law.”

The Bush administration judged that Iraqis made satisfactory progress toward 10 of the 18 benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress in three categories, mixed progress in three others and provided no assessment in two categories.

The report’s most negative findings focused on “political interference with [Iraqi special forces] operations from both the Ministry of the Interior and the Office of the Commander in Chief (OCINC).”

The administration’s “interim” report in July mentioned both the Interior Ministry and the OCINC as interfering with Iraq’s security forces, but the report yesterday put the interference front and center and went into greater detail with examples.

The July report found satisfactory progress in eight categories, unsatisfactory progress in six categories, mixed progress in two categories and no assessment in two others.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said the U.S. strategy in Iraq is “an abject failure,” because Iraqi politicians have failed to pass key laws.

“The surge has failed,” Mr. Biden said. “We’ve been told now for the last year and a half we’re on the verge of an oil law every other day. We are nowhere near getting an oil law, which is central to this.”

Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, said “the Iraqi government is not making progress — or dramatic progress — with respect to these benchmarks.”

Mr. Bush on Thursday night announced the withdrawal of between 22,000 and 30,000 U.S. troops by next summer, and Mr. Gates said yesterday he would like U.S. troops to proceed with a similar withdrawal in the second half of next year.

Mr. Biden said he and most other Democrats want the U.S. to pull all but about 35,000 to 50,000 troops out of Iraq by next summer.

Vice President Dick Cheney, speaking yesterday at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., argued that “conditions in Iraq are changing for the better.”

“Tough work lies ahead. But the evidence from a theater of war 6,000 miles away is beyond question: The troop surge has achieved solid results, and in a relatively short period of time,” Mr. Cheney said. “The United States and our coalition are getting things right in Iraq.”

However, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid pointed to a report last week by the congressionally controlled Government Accountability Office that found that Iraqis fully met only three benchmarks, while partially fulfilling four benchmarks and failing to meet 11 benchmarks.

“It is time to change the mission in Iraq to protect our troops and make America safer,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Democrats will continue to work to do so and hope that Republicans who had previously called for a change of course in September join us.”

Mr. Reid needs nine Republican votes to reach the 60-vote filibuster-proof majority that would enable Democrats to pass legislation. In previous war debates this year, Mr. Reid successfully pealed off only one Republican, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

Mr. Reed said Democrats still are trying to find a middle ground that will attract moderate Republicans while not repulsing members of their own party who want dramatic action.

He said he and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, will begin crafting specific language tomorrow or Monday.

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