Friday, August 31, 2007

The White House believes it has made significant progress over the past month in swaying public and political opinion toward supporting a continued U.S. military effort in Iraq, one of President Bush’s closest advisers said in an interview.

“The end of the August feels a lot better than the beginning of August when it comes to where we are relative to perceptions of our Iraq policy and what is working,” said Ed Gillespie, counselor to the president.

Congress returns Tuesday from a monthlong recess that did not go according to plan for Democratic leaders and the antiwar movement, who were looking to September as a time to force Mr. Bush into changing course in Iraq.

That moment may still come. But August brought numerous reports from regional specialists and even Democratic members of Congress that the president’s surge of 30,000 troops is producing positive results.

“It is clear that the surge is producing significant results. And that does not seem to be an object of controversy really, significant controversy, anymore,” said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Political reconciliation among Iraqi Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds remains problematic, but even there, all three factions reached a still-nebulous power-sharing agreement last weekend, which Mr. Gillespie cited as an improvement.

“Even [the lack of political reconciliation] has changed since last week. We are seeing progress now,” Mr. Gillespie said. “I do think there is a general view that the surge is having its desired effect.”

The latest poll by United Press International/Zogby Interactive showed that 54 percent think the war is not lost, with respondents splitting sharply along party lines on that question.

But a report from the congressionally controlled Government Accountability Office, to be delivered next week, will say that there is little progress on both military and political fronts, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

Democratic leaders yesterday seized on the GAO report and also criticized Mr. Bush for his plans to request $50 billion in Iraq spending, in addition to a roughly $460 billion fiscal 2008 defense budget.

“The president is demanding tens of billions more dollars for the war in Iraq despite nonpartisan conclusions, such as the draft GAO report and the recent National Intelligence Estimate, that the Iraqi government has failed to achieve required reforms,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Mr. Snow acknowledged that “many” benchmarks have not been met but maintained that “what is significant is that there is progress toward a great number of them.”

The main White House response to the GAO findings and other reports has been to point to a progress report that they will issue next month in conjunction with testimony from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.

Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker will testify before Congress on Sept. 11 and Sept. 12.

Mr. Snow said these two men are “the folks who have a real grasp of ground truth,” but that “on the other hand, you’re going to take a look at all the input.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, again indicated that the report from Gen. Petraeus and Mr. Crocker will do little to persuade him that he was wrong when he said in April, “This war is lost and … the surge is not accomplishing anything.”

“Democrats will continue to push for a new strategy to protect our troops and make America secure,” Mr. Reid said, pointing to the GAO report and voicing concerns that the Pentagon was pressuring the GAO to soften their critical findings.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that Defense Department officials “made some factual corrections” to the GAO report.

“We have provided the GAO with information which we believe will lead them to conclude that a few of the benchmark grades should be upgraded from ‘not met’ to ‘met,’ ” Mr. Morrell said, declining to go into further detail.

White House and Pentagon officials argued that the GAO report graded progress in Iraq on a more rigid scale that allowed no room for partially completed objectives.

A White House report in July found that eight out of 18 benchmarks set up by Congress had been reached, and that partial progress had been made toward two other benchmarks. The GAO report found that only three out of 18 benchmarks had been met, and that two had been partially met.

“The standard that GAO has set is far more stringent — some might argue it’s impossible to meet,” Mr. Morrell said.

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