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Iraq: Feuding over Benchmarks

As the U.S. Congress prepares for a critical September assessment of progress in Iraq, a draft of an upcoming report by Congress’s nonpartisan investigative arm states that Iraq has met only three of eighteen congressionally mandated benchmarks for progress, in contrast to an earlier White House report that claimed "satisfactory" progress on eight of the benchmarks.

A draft of the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was leaked to the Washington Post by an official "who feared that its pessimistic conclusions would be watered down" by the Department of Defense and other government agencies prior to the release of the final report, the Post reported last Thursday.

Indeed, Pentagon officials and prominent Iraq hawks were quick to attack the validity of the draft, saying that it held progress in Iraq to an unreasonably high standard.

The release of the GAO’s pessimistic assessment comes at a critical time in the Iraq debate, as administration officials including Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the ambassador to Iraq, are due to report to Congress in mid-September on the progress of the war.

Congressional legislation in May 2007 established 18 benchmarks for military and political progress in Iraq, and a White House assessment in July was relatively upbeat, reporting "satisfactory" progress on eight of the benchmarks and "mixed" progress on two more.

The GAO report was more pessimistic, claiming that only three of the benchmarks had been met: creating committees in support of the Baghdad Security Plan, establishing of joint security stations in Baghdad, and ensuring the rights of minority parties in the Iraqi legislature.

In several areas where the White House had reported satisfactory progress, the GAO claimed that benchmarks had been unmet or only partially met. These included allocating and spending $10 billion of revenue for reconstruction projects, providing three effective Iraqi brigades to support U.S. military operations, and reviewing changes to the Iraqi constitution.

The draft concluded that "key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds."

It also offered an implicit rebuke to earlier administration assessments, claiming that they "would be more useful" if they provided more details to support their claims and more data on violence in Iraq.

The final version of the report was slated to be released September 4; the Pentagon and other relevant agencies must review the draft. The leakage of the document to the Washington Post is a sign that officials involved in the report’s preparation are worried that its negative assessments will be toned down during the review process.

Administration officials downplayed the importance of the GAO report, saying that it failed to account for some data and used an unreasonably high standard to assess progress.

"We have provided the GAO with information which we believe will lead them to conclude that a few of the benchmark grades should be upgraded from ‘not met’ to ‘met,"’ Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Thursday.

Critics of the report also claimed that differences between the GAO and White House assessments were largely the result of different standards of evaluation. While the White House evaluated whether the rate of progress toward the benchmarks was "satisfactory" or "unsatisfactory," the GAO measured whether benchmarks had actually been "met" or "unmet."

William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard and a prominent Iraq hawk, wrote an article in the Standard calling the release of the draft "a pathetic preemptive strike" by Congress and the Washington Post. He wrote that evaluating whether benchmarks had already been met was a "ridiculous standard" because "no one ever promised or expected that the Iraqis would have met the benchmarks by now."

The report did not, however, simply classify benchmarks as either met or unmet. It also classified some as "partially met," thereby allowing the GAO to recognize progress that fell short of reaching benchmarks.

The draft found "partially met" benchmarks in only two areas: enacting legislation to form semi-autonomous regions and spending the $10 billion in reconstruction money.

The release of the GAO report is likely to increase congressional criticism of President George W. Bush’s surge strategy for Iraq. Many analysts expect a showdown when Petraeus and Crocker report to Congress in mid-September.

Although the administration has claimed that the surge has led to an improvement in the security situation on the ground, this claim has repeatedly been called into question.

The GAO report noted that attacks on U.S. forces have decreased, but also that attacks against on Iraqi civilians have remained unchanged, and that "U.S. agencies differ on whether such [sectarian] violence has been reduced."

And on Sunday, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the rate of deaths from sectarian attacks has almost doubled in 2007. The AP found that war-related deaths in Iraq have averaged at least 62 per day in 2007, compared to 33 per day in 2006.

On the political front, signs of reconciliation have been few and far between. Last week, several prominent Iraqi leaders announced a deal that would let some members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party back into the government, an issue that has been a key point of contention between Sunni and Shi’ite factions.

But many experts doubted that the deal would lead to any real political progress.

"This agreement was likely produced for the sole purpose of giving Ryan Crocker something to bring back to Congress," wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University. "But it doesn’t actually solve anything: [Sunni leader Tareq al] Hashemi has made very clear that he has no intention of rejoining [Prime Minister Nouri al] Maliki’s government, the agreements exist only on paper at this point, and nothing has been done about the deeply sectarian nature of what passes for the Iraqi state."

While Democrats say they are determined to enact legislation that would force the administration to begin withdrawing troops as early as the end of this year, most political analysts here feel that they will not succeed in achieving a veto-proof majority.

In fact, the Washington Post reported last Wednesday that the Bush administration plans to request an extra $50 billion in war funding from Congress next month; the money would come in addition to a $460 billion 2008 defense budget and a $147 billion defense supplemental bill for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Daniel Luban writes for the Inter Press Service.

 

Citations

Daniel Luban, "Iraq: Feuding over Benchmarks," Right Web Analysis (Somerville, MA: International Relations Center, September 4, 2007).

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