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Administration foiled by its own Iraq benchmarks

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration’s decision to set benchmarks for measuring the progress of the Iraq mission is now seen by some U.S. officials as a costly blunder that has only aided the White House’s critics in Congress and its foes in Iraq.

When they began publicizing the benchmarks a year ago, administration officials saw them as realistic goals that would prod the Iraqi government toward reconciliation, while helping sustain political support for the effort at home. The yardsticks include steps vital to Iraq’s stability: passage of a law to divide oil revenue among the key communities, reforms to allow more members of Saddam Hussein’s party back into the government, and elections to divide power in the provinces.

Yet now, with the major goals still out of reach, the administration is playing down their importance. With an interim report on the U.S. effort due out today, administration officials instead are emphasizing other goals -- some of which are less ambitious but have been attained.

Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, recently told reporters that while the benchmarks remain important, “We have to look on a wider scale than the benchmarks themselves.”

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In private, many officials were more scathing in their critique, saying that defining the goals in such a way galvanized resistance in Iraq and gave war critics a way to argue that the U.S. mission was falling short.

“You better believe it was a mistake,” said a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity when criticizing administration policy. “In any armed conflict, trying to predict the future is folly.... You are setting up some degree of failure.”

President Bush turned to benchmarks amid intensifying criticism from Congress and plummeting public support. Benchmarks offered a way to counter congressional demands for timetables and to dampen the midterm election rage that ultimately cost his party control of Congress.

Some officials now believe that setting benchmarks stirred resentment among proud Iraqi leaders and spelled out for anti-American groups in Iraq precisely the things they should try to obstruct.

The administration decided to make the goals public last summer, after the elected government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki took power. U.S. officials quickly realized that the fractious government would need a spur; at the same time, Iraq’s leadership was under pressure from the United States to provide signs of progress to justify continuation of the war effort.

Senior U.S. officials -- while acknowledging at the time that brokering these deals would be tough -- voiced repeated public optimism that the goals would be met. At times, they seemed to threaten that if the Iraqis didn’t move, there would be adverse consequences.

Bush, in a Jan. 10 speech laying out his troop “surge” strategy, outlined five of the major benchmarks and said: “America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced.”

A senior administration official, briefing reporters that same day, said Iraq’s leadership was “talking about, in a fairly short period of time” moving on the key reforms. He said U.S. officials would quickly acquire “the ability to judge” whether the Iraqis were living up to their promises.

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But the effort bogged down.

By February, U.S. officials had grown deeply pessimistic about the prospects for easing of the so-called de-Baathification law to allow former low-ranking members of the deposed Baath Party to return to government.

The same month, U.S. officials announced that a new oil law had made it through Maliki’s Cabinet and seemed on a path to enactment. But its progress soon ground to a halt, and the measure continues to languish.

The Maliki government, in laying out benchmarks for itself last year, had called for the completion of many by the first quarter of this year. But officials failed to make the deadlines.

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The Bush administration has not penalized the Iraqis for these failures. U.S. officials said they understood that the central government was weak and couldn’t force consensus if it wanted to.

But the delays did have a consequence -- stirring louder and more sharply focused criticism of the Baghdad government in Congress, among Republicans and Democrats. The criticism played a pivotal role in persuading many lawmakers to split with the White House over the war.

This spring, Congress wrote 18 benchmarks for political, security and economic reforms into the 2007 emergency war-spending bill. The yardsticks were based on pledges of action that the Maliki government had made in January, when Bush agreed to send in more U.S. troops. Bush signed that measure, endorsing the 18 goals.

Some U.S. officials insist that the benchmarks remain important, and emphasize that the Iraqis had made some progress.

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Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, told reporters this week that the Iraqis have taken important steps on the oil law and other key measures. But, he said, the benchmarks don’t measure other signs of progress, such as the willingness of tribal leaders in Al Anbar province to work against militants in that area. “Unless you have a set of benchmarks that looks like the New York City phonebook, it’s very difficult to measure,” he said.

One administration official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said senior officials misjudged the difficulty of taking these steps toward Iraqi reconciliation. He said setting out the goals created expectations that could not be met.

“There is a rush to declare failure if an expectation is not met,” the official said. “But it doesn’t mean failure is imminent. It is up to everyone to step back and look at the reasons” the benchmarks were not met.

Daniel P. Serwer of the U.S. Institute for Peace said it was likely that Islamic radicals and Saddamists in Iraq had been closely watching how the administration was trying to reshape Iraq’s government, and had done what they could to block it.

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“The enemy is rational. They know what we’re trying to do, and they want to stop it,” he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writers Julian E. Barnes and Doyle McManus contributed to this report.

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Iraqi benchmarks

Here are the 18 benchmarks written into law by Congress. Considered to be among the most important are those dealing with the distribution of oil profits, de-Baathification, provincial elections and the constitutional review, none of which have been met.

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* Forming a constitutional review committee and completing the constitutional review.

* Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Baathification.

* Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of oil revenue.

* Enacting and implementing legislation on procedures to form semiautonomous regions.

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* Enacting and implementing legislation to hold provincial elections.

* Enacting and implementing legislation that addresses amnesty.

* Enacting and implementing legislation to disarm militias.

* Establishing political, media, economic and services committees in support of the Baghdad security plan.

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* Providing three trained, ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations.

* Providing Iraqi commanders with authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, without political intervention.

* Ensuring that the Iraqi security forces are providing evenhanded enforcement of the law.

* Ensuring that the Baghdad security plan will not result in havens for militias or insurgents.

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* Reducing the level of sectarian violence and eliminating militia control of local security.

* Establishing planned joint-security stations in neighborhoods across Baghdad.

* Increasing the number of Iraqi security forces units capable of operating independently.

* Ensuring that the rights of minority political parties in the Iraqi legislature are protected.

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* Allocating and spending $10 billion in Iraqi revenue for reconstruction projects -- including delivery of essential services -- on an equitable basis.

* Ensuring that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi security forces.

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Los Angeles Times

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