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Report citing little political progress in Iraq draws criticism from White House, Pentagon

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Posted: August 30, 2007 5:52 p.m.
Updated: September 14, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    WASHINGTON — An independent assessment concluding that Iraq has made little political progress in recess months despite an influx of U.S. troops drew fierce pushback from the White House on Thursday and provided fresh ammunition for Democrats who want to bring troops home.
    The political wrangling came days before the report was to be officially released and while most lawmakers were still out of town for the August recess, reflecting the high stakes involved for both sides in the Iraq war debate. President Bush, who planned to meet Friday 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.
    ‘‘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.
    In a draft report circulated this week, the Government Accountability Office concluded that at least 13 of the 18 political and security goals for the Iraqi government have not been met. Administration officials swiftly objected to several of the findings and dismissed the report as unrealistically harsh because it assigned pass-or-fail grades to each benchmark, with little nuance.
    GAO officials briefed congressional staff on their findings behind closed doors, promising the aides an unvarnished assessment of Iraq when an unclassified version of the report is publicly released on Sept. 4.
    ‘‘The real question that people have is: What’s going on in Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact?’’ said White House spokesman Tony Snow. ‘‘The answer is yes. There’s no question about it.’’
    But Democrats and even some Republicans say military progress made in recent weeks is not the issue. If Baghdad politicians refuse to reach a lasting political settlement that can influence the sectarian-fueled violence, the increase in troops is useless, they said.
    ‘‘By almost every measurable measure of progress, they have not only failed to progress, they have in many cases gone backwards,’’ said Rep. Jason Altmire, D-Pa., after his recent trip to Iraq. ‘‘That to me is the most troubling part of the experience that we had — because we can see, on the military side, our men and women are doing what has been asked of them.’’
    The Pentagon and State Department provided detailed and lengthy objections to GAO this week in the hopes of swaying the findings.
    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.
    ‘‘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,’’’ Morrell said. He declined to elaborate or to spell out which of the benchmark grades the Pentagon was disputing.
    State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said GAO should at least note progress made when ruling that Iraq has failed to meet a specific benchmark.
    Democrats are expected to try to use money needed to support the war as leverage to bring troops home. The Pentagon has requested $147 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan for the 2007 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
    House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday suggested Bush should not be asking Congress to approve ‘‘tens of billions more dollars’’ when independent voices like GAO find the Iraqis are failing to reach a political accord.
    ‘‘With the president continuing to stay the course in Iraq, Republicans will have to decide whether they will continue to vote with him or join Democrats and the vast majority of Americans who are demanding a new direction in Iraq and refocusing America’s efforts on fighting the real threats of terrorism around the world,’’ said Pelosi, D-Calif.
    The GAO report is one of several assessments called for in May legislation that funded the war: Retired Gen. James Jones briefs Congress next week on his assessment of the Iraqi security forces; Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, testify the week of Sept. 10. Bush will deliver his own progress report by Sept. 15.
    Bush is meeting Friday with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in a secure conference room at the Pentagon known as ‘‘the Tank.’’
    Maj. Gen. Richard Sherlock, director of operational planning for the Joint Chiefs, told reporters that this would be the Joint Chiefs’ opportunity to ‘‘provide the president with their unvarnished recommendations and their assessments of current operations’’ — in particular, the situation in Iraq.
    It did not appear that the session was intended to work out a consensus military view on how long Bush should maintain the U.S. troop buildup in Iraq or how soon to transition to Iraqi control of security.
    Morrell said Wednesday that Gates wanted to ensure that all senior military leaders had an opportunity to express their individual views on Iraq to the president, without feeling the need to present a consensus view.
    Bush will be hearing advice from Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; Adm. William Fallon, the senior commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East; and the top commanders in Baghdad.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Robert Burns, Matthew Lee, Kimberly Hefling, Terence Hunt and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.

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