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Bush presents a mixed report on Iraq progress

  Politics  -   POSTED: 2007/07/12 18:52

Asking for patience with what he called "an ugly war," President George W. Bush on Thursday presented a mixed progress report on Iraq, with some military advances offset by persistent violence and halting movement toward political reconciliation. In a news conference focused on the 25-page progress report issued Thursday, he said the Iraqi government had shown progress on only 8 of 18 "benchmarks" set by Congress, but that there was sufficient forward motion to give "cause for optimism." He also warned Congress against pursuing efforts to limit his war-fighting powers.

"I don't think Congress ought to be running the war," Bush said. "They ought to be funding the troops."

He asked lawmakers to wait until September for a more telling analysis of progress.

The president said that he understood that "there's war fatigue in America" - even among some Republican lawmakers - but added that bringing troops home before they had achieved success would mean disaster. In what seemed to be another signal that he plans no sudden change on Iraq, Bush announced that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates would travel to the Middle East next month to reassure U.S. allies of American support.

The progress report arrived on Capitol Hill as the Senate and House were conducting separate debates on the war. While the president renewed his threat to veto any legislation calling for a timetable for troop withdrawal, the Democratic majority worked to build support for such proposals.

"Today's report from the president confirms what many had suspected - the war in Iraq is headed in a dangerous direction," said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. "The Iraqi government has not met the key political benchmarks it has set for itself and Iraqi security forces continue to lag well behind expectations."

He added: "We must change course now, not in September."

And Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential hopeful, said, "Don't tell us we're making progress in Iraq when the last three months have been some of the deadliest since this war began."

The document, reflecting input from top U.S. military, diplomatic and intelligence officials, described a "complex and extremely challenging" security situation. It predicted "tough fighting" through the summer and accelerated attacks by anti-coalition fighters with the approach of September.

But the document also pointed toward "encouraging signs that should, over time, point the way to a more normalized and sustainable level of U.S. engagement in Iraq, with a decreasing number of U.S. combat forces increasingly focused on a core set of missions, such as those set out by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group."

In December, the Iraq Study Group called for a phased withdrawal of combat troops, a formulation supported by some Democrats in Congress. Bush said Thursday that he shared the study group's goal of moving toward "a more limited role in Iraq for the United States."

But he said it was wrong to suggest that his administration did not want to bring the troops home as soon as possible.

"If we increase our support at this crucial moment, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home," he said.

The legislation that required the two reports said that if the president could not certify progress on the benchmarks, he would have to propose changes in strategy or see war funding reduced.

The document asserts that satisfactory progress has been achieved on eight of the 18 benchmarks, predominantly in military areas. Movement on eight others was unsatisfactory, with political reconciliation lagging. Two other areas got mixed assessments.

But the report said that even when the political performance of the Iraqi government had been unsatisfactory, it was too early to make final judgments.

That approach allowed the administration to rebut recent claims by some in Congress that almost no progress had been made in Iraq since Bush changed course in January and sent 30,000 additional troops to Iraq.

The report insisted on the need for more time to see the results of the just-completed troop increase; progress on national reconciliation may require "a sustained period of reduced violence in order to build trust." Only half the 300 extra civilian teams dedicated to provincial reconstruction are in place, and the full complement will not be reached until December, the report says.

The administration report certified satisfactory progress on providing trained Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations; preventing Baghdad from becoming "a safe haven for any outlaws"; and protecting minority-part rights in the Iraqi legislature.

Progress was inadequate on making it easier for former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to obtain government jobs as a step toward reconciliation with Sunnis; disarming militia groups; buffering Iraqi commanders from "political intervention"; and passing oil and revenue-sharing legislation.

Another shortfall was in "increasing the number of Iraqi Security Forces units capable of operating independently." Progress had been "slow," and operations by those forces still required "the presence of coalition partners and support." Political reconciliation remained elusive, the document said.

Throughout Iraq, ethnic and sectarian division, violence, corruption and lack of basic services remained problematic. There were some signs of economic progress, however, including slightly lower unemployment and inflation rates.

A military bright spot, often cited by the administration, was the somewhat improved situation in Anbar Province.

The administration has worried that benchmarks could effectively provide the coalition's enemies with a recipe for frustrating its goals. Indeed, the report predicts that a resilient Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, or AQI for its other name, Al Qaeda in Iraq, will "attempt to increase its tempo of attacks as September approaches - in an effort to influence U.S. domestic opinion about sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq."

The report reasserts an Iranian link to the violence, saying, "Iran continues to train, fund and equip extremist groups, both Shi'a and Sunni, that attack Iraqi and coalition forces."

The Syrian role is assessed harshly as well. The report says that an estimated 80 percent of suicide bombers in Iraq are foreigners, most of whom have passed through Syria after flying from their home countries to Damascus. "This Syria-based network is able to supply some 50 to 80 suicide bombers to AQI per month," the analysis states.

But in one sign of progress, it says that suicide attacks involving vehicle-born explosives have declined in recent months from the all-time highs they hit in March and April, following "aggressive coalition and Iraqi operations into former AQI havens."

A central coalition goal has been to create conditions for the Iraqi government and officials to be able to work in relative peace to establish political normality. In Anbar, the report says, that is beginning to happen. "The provincial government - for the first time in a year - is now able to meet in the province," it says.

And fundamentally, the report finds that the Iraqi political establishment lacks both the culture and the will for rapid progress, partly because it depends on consensus building between competing groups. National reconciliation requires both leadership and, the report says, "expression of a common national political will, or 'vision,' that has so far been lacking."

Still, the report again found reason for hope. The national response to the June 13 bombing of a mosque in Samarra - which provoked fears of a cycle of reprisal violence - was relatively effective in muting such a reaction, the report states. "When necessary, the government of Iraq and major political figures can overcome the dynamics that otherwise inhibit effectiveness," it says.

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