A congressional assessment concluding that Iraq has made little political progress in recess months despite an influx of U.S. troops drew fierce push back from the White House yesterday and provided fresh ammunition for Democrats who want to bring troops home.
The political wrangling came days before the report was to be officially released and while most lawmakers were still out of town for the August recess, reflecting the high stakes involved for both sides in the Iraq war debate. President Bush, who planned to meet today at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is nearing a decision on a way forward in Iraq while Congress planned another round of votes this fall to withdraw U.S. forces.
“It is clear that every objective expert keeps providing the American public with the same facts: that the president’s flawed Iraq strategy is failing to deliver what it needs to — a political solution for Iraq,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.
In a draft report circulated this week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concluded that at least 13 of the 18 political and security goals for the Iraqi government have not been met. Administration officials swiftly objected to several of the findings and dismissed the report as unrealistically harsh because it assigned pass-or-fail grades to each benchmark, with little nuance.
GAO officials briefed congressional staff on their findings behind closed doors, promising the aides an unvarnished assessment of Iraq when an unclassified version of the report is publicly released Tuesday.
“The real question that people have is: What’s going on in Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact?” said White House spokesman Tony Snow. “The answer is yes. There’s no question about it.”
But Democrats and even some Republicans say military progress made in recent weeks is not the issue. If Baghdad politicians refuse to reach a lasting political settlement that can influence the sectarian-fueled violence, the increase in troops is useless, they said.
“By almost every measurable measure of progress, they have not only failed to progress, they have in many cases gone backwards,” said Rep. Jason Altmire, Pennsylvania Democrat, after his recent trip to Iraq. “That to me is the most troubling part of the experience that we had — because we can see, on the military side, our men and women are doing what has been asked of them.”
The Pentagon and State Department provided detailed and lengthy objections to GAO this week in the hopes of swaying the findings.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said yesterday that after reviewing a draft of the GAO report, policy officials “made some factual corrections” and “offered some suggestions on a few of the actual grades” assigned by the GAO.
“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. He declined to elaborate or to spell out which of the benchmark grades the Pentagon was disputing.
State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said GAO should at least note progress made when ruling that Iraq has failed to meet a specific benchmark.