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White House caps week with Iraq report

Times Staff Writer

In a new report to Congress, the White House acknowledged Friday that the Iraqi government had made little political progress in recent months, a finding that ended a week of debate over the war on a down note for the White House.

The report said Iraqi leaders had improved their performance on only one of 18 measurements of progress since an interim report in July. Overall, the White House reported that satisfactory progress was being made toward half of the 18 benchmarks set by the administration and the Iraqi government.

After the July report, administration officials began playing down the importance of the benchmarks and, in presentations this week before Congress, top U.S. military and civilian leaders said other developments were just as significant as progress on the key measures.

As a result, Friday’s report -- though long awaited by Congress, which mandated it -- was anticlimactic. In a lengthy preamble to the report, the administration restated arguments that benchmarks were an imperfect measure of progress and that they should be viewed “in a larger context.”

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Democrats said the report showed continued failure of the administration’s war policy.

“According to this latest report card, the president’s war policy is still flunking,” said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “It’s clear that Iraq is light-years away from security or political stability.”

The report said Iraq’s political leaders faced steep odds in achieving the benchmarks.

“They and their families take great risks daily,” the report added. “We continue to encourage and press them to achieve established benchmarks, since we believe that those efforts will contribute over time to Iraq’s stability, to its ability to provide for its own security, and to the international effort to counter violent extremism.”

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Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker spent several days on Capitol Hill arguing that their strategy in Iraq was working. On Thursday, in what he said was a measure of that progress, Bush made an address to the nation from the Oval Office, announcing that small numbers of troops could begin returning home by the end of the year.

Bush followed up that speech Friday with a visit to Marines at their base in Quantico, Va., sharing a lunch of roast beef and mashed potatoes and delivering his Iraq message in person.

“I told them that I was able to give the speech because of the progress being made,” Bush told reporters afterward. “I hope the American people listened very carefully to what our commanders and Ambassador Crocker had to say. They’re there. They understand the progress that’s being made.”

Since Bush announced his “surge” strategy in January, September has been seen as a critical point of decision. For most of the summer, White House officials urged lawmakers to wait for Petraeus’ report before making up their minds about the war.

But Petraeus’ testimony, like Friday’s benchmark report, diminished in importance as the administration pressed its case for more time, saying key decisions would be made in March 2008. Similarly, Bush’s announcement that a small number of troops could start coming home was clouded by the fact that the U.S. presence would probably remain at pre-surge levels -- about 130,000 to 140,000 troops -- well into 2008.

Democrats said the troops would have been returning home on about the same schedule anyway unless the administration prolonged their tours beyond the current 15 months.

“We should be talking about real change,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Friday.

“And last evening, the president did not talk about real change.”

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Vice President Dick Cheney, who has kept a low profile in recent weeks as the Iraq debate has grown louder, said Friday: “The troop surge has achieved solid results, and in a relatively short period of time.”

The U.S.-led coalition is “getting things right in Iraq” after a long time, he said.

Cheney was speaking at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich.; he was President Ford’s chief of staff.

Cheney delivered similar remarks later in the day in Tampa, Fla., at the headquarters of the U.S. Central Command, responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East.

The report on the benchmarks was mandated by Congress this year as a condition for continuing to fund military operations in Iraq.

But the specific measures, including legislative goals for the Iraqi parliament, were first outlined last year by the Iraqi government and embraced by Bush in January.

Between July and September, the Iraqi government showed significant improvement on one benchmark: legislation to address the status of those who had belonged to Saddam Hussein’s ruling Baath Party. In late August, the leaders of Iraq’s five main political groups agreed on draft legislation, which the administration considered adequate to move the issue to the “satisfactory progress” category in the report.

However, the deal still must be adopted by the Iraqi parliament, and its fate remains uncertain.

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In a conference call with reporters, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate, said that after months of anticipation, the benchmark report was disappointing.

“You don’t even have to go to the benchmarks to realize what an abject failure this policy has been,” Biden said.

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maura.reynolds@latimes.com


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