WASHINGTON – The Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy, according to senior administration officials closely involved in the matter. As they prepare an interim report due next week, officials are marshaling alternative evidence of progress to persuade Congress to continue supporting the war.
In a preview of the assessment it must deliver to Congress in September, the administration will report that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province are turning against the group al-Qaida in Iraq in growing numbers; that sectarian killings were down in June; and that Iraqi political leaders managed last month to agree on a unified response to the bombing of a major religious shrine, officials said.
Those achievements are markedly different from the benchmarks Bush set when he announced his decision to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq. More troops, Bush said, would enable the Iraqis to proceed this year with provincial elections and pass a raft of power-sharing legislation. He said the government of President Nouri al-Maliki planned to “take responsibility for security in all of Iraq’s provinces by November.”
Congress expanded on Bush’s benchmarks, writing 18 goals into law as part of the war-funding measure it passed in the spring. Lawmakers asked for an interim report in July and set a Sept. 15 deadline for a comprehensive assessment by Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador. Now, as U.S. combat deaths have escalated, violence has spread far beyond Baghdad and sectarian political divides have deepened, the administration must persuade lawmakers to use more flexible, less ambitious standards.
But anything short of progress on the original benchmarks is unlikely to appease the growing ranks of disaffected Republican lawmakers urging Bush to develop a new strategy. Although Republicans held the line this year against Democratic efforts to set a timeline for withdrawing troops, several influential GOP senators have broken with Bush, charging that his plan is failing and calling for troop redeployments as early as spring.
According to several senior officials who agreed to discuss the situation in Iraq only on the condition of anonymity, the political goals that seemed achievable earlier this year remain hostage to the security situation. If extreme violence were to decline, Iraq’s political paralysis might eventually subside. “If they are arguing, accusing, gridlocking,” one official said, “none of that would mean the country is falling apart if it was against the backdrop of a stabilizing security situation.”
From a military perspective, however, the political stalemate is hampering security. “The security progress we’re making is real,” said a military intelligence official. “But it’s only in part of the country, and there’s not enough political progress to get us over the line in September.”
In their September report, sources said, Petraeus and Crocker intend to emphasize how security and politics are intertwined, and how progress in either will be incremental. In that context, the administration will offer new measures of progress to justify continuing the war.
“There are things going on that we never could have foreseen,” said one official, who argued that the original benchmarks set by Bush six months ago – and endorsed by the Maliki government – are not only unachievable in the short term but also irrelevant to changing Iraq conditions.
As they work to put together the reports due to Congress next week and in September, these officials and others close recognize that the administration is boxed in by measurements put into law in May.
“That is a problem,” the official said. “These are congressionally mandated benchmarks now.” They require Bush to certify movement in areas ranging from the passage of specific legislation by the Iraqi parliament to the numbers of Iraqi military units able to operate independently. If he cannot make a convincing case, the legislation requires the president to explain how he will change his strategy.
Top administration officials are aware that the strategy’s stated goal – using U.S. forces to create breathing space for Iraqi political reconciliation – will not be met by September, said one person fresh from a White House meeting. But though some, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have indicated flexibility toward other options, including early troop redeployments, Bush has made no decisions on a new course.
“The heart of darkness is the president,” the person said. “Nobody knows what he thinks, even the people who work for him.”
Military commanders say that their offensive is improving security in Baghdad. “Everything takes time and everything takes longer than you think it’s going to take,” Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division, which is fighting south of Baghdad, said Friday. “There is indeed room for optimism. I see progress, but there needs to be more.”
Yet the month of May, which came before the Phantom Thunder offensive began, was the most violent in Iraq since November 2004, when U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a fierce battle to retake Fallujah. That intensity promises to continue through the summer. “I see these aggressive offensive operations … taking us through July, August and into September,” Lynch said.
Not even the most optimistic commanders contend that the offensive is allowing for political reconciliation. At best, Petraeus is likely to report in September, security will have improved in the capital, perhaps returning to the level of 2005, when the city was violent but not racked by low-level civil war.
More significant is whether that slight improvement in security can be built upon. Regardless of what decisions are made in Washington and Baghdad, the U.S. military cannot sustain the current force levels beyond March 2008. Long-term holding of cleared areas will fall to Iraqi soldiers and police officers.
Because of corruption and mixed loyalties, a Pentagon official said about the Iraqi police, “half of them are part of the problem, not the solution.” The portrait officials paint of the Iraqi military is somewhat brighter. “These guys have now been through some pretty hard combat,” said a senior administration official. “They’re in the fight, not running from it. But can they do it without us there? Almost certainly not.”
Even if U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies are able to hold Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, noted the intelligence official, there is a good chance security will deteriorate elsewhere because there are not enough U.S. troops to spread around. As U.S. troop numbers decrease, he said, it is possible that by sometime next year “we control the middle, the Kurds control the north, and the Iranians control the south.”
Facing increased public disapproval and eroding Republican support, Bush has stepped up his warnings that a sudden U.S. withdrawal would allow al-Qaida or Iran – or both – to take over Iraq. What is more likely, several officials said, is a deeper split between competing Shiite groups supported in varying degrees by Iran, and greater involvement by neighboring Arab states in Sunni areas battling al-Qaida in Iraq. The Kurdish region, officials said, would become further estranged from the rest of Iraq, and its tensions with Turkey would increase.
“I can’t say that al-Qaida is going to take over, or that Iran is going to take over,” an official said. “I don’t think either are true. But I do think that a lot of very, very bad things would happen.” If the administration decided to have troops retreat to bases inside Iraq and not intervene in sectarian warfare, he said, the U.S. military could find itself in a position that “would make the Dutch at Srebrenica look like heroes.”