WASHINGTON – An independent assessment concluding that Iraq has made little political progress in recent months despite an influx of U.S. troops drew fierce objections from the White House on Thursday and provided fresh ammunition for Democrats who want to bring troops home.
Reflecting the high stakes involved for both sides in the Iraq war debate, the political wrangling came days before the report was to be officially released and with most lawmakers still out of town for the August recess. 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 end the war.
The draft report by the Government Accountability Office concluded Iraq has satisfied three of 18 benchmarks set by Congress and partially met two others, a senior administration official said Thursday. Those don’t include the high-profile political issues such as passage of a national oil revenue sharing law that the Bush administration has said are critical to Iraq’s future.
The State Department, Pentagon and White House dispute some GAO findings, including the conclusion that Iraq has only partially met tests involving its budget process and legislation dealing with semiautonomous regions in the large, multiethnic country, two officials said.
Administration officials also disputed that Iraq has failed to provide three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations or to ensure that the security plan will not provide a safe haven for outlaws.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations that included lengthy meetings Thursday at the White House. The GAO may alter some of its findings in response to administration arguments, one official said.
Administration officials also said the draft report is unrealistically harsh because it assigned pass-or-fail grades to each benchmark.
Bush has suggested he intends to stick to his Iraq strategy, but in his meeting today at the Pentagon he’s expected to hear some of the Joint Chiefs express deep concern at the long-term impact on the military of maintaining a heavy troop presence in Iraq in 2008 and beyond. Now, there are more than 160,000 troops in Iraq, the most since the war began in 2003.
The Joint Chiefs are not, however, expected to urge Bush to withdraw from Iraq entirely as many Democrats want.”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, D-Nev.
The Pentagon and State Department provided detailed and lengthy objections to the findings by the congressional auditors.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Thursday 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.