The White House has delivered a much-awaited, interim report card on President Bush's troop surge strategy.
The 25-page assessment gave mixed reviews. In some areas, mostly security, the Bush administration said Iraq made progress, but the political situation is still far from adequate. The report comes as several Republicans have broken ranks with the President and are calling for a change of strategy in Iraq.
Two months ago, when Congress passed a supplemental war spending bill, it ordered the White House to provide a progress report by July 15. Back then, the report was seen as an initial check on whether the U.S. military surge was reducing violence enough to create conditions for political progress.
But as calls are growing from both sides of the aisle to pull out of Iraq, the assessment has taken on greater political weight. On Thursday, President Bush tried to play down the report, saying it was just a preliminary assessment.
"Of the 18 benchmarks Congress asked us to measure, we can report that satisfactory progress is being made in eight areas," the president said.
As an example, President Bush pointed out the Iraqi government is spending more than $7 billion of its own money this year to train, equip and modernize its forces.
"In eight other areas, the Iraqis have much more work to do," President Bush said. "For example, they have not done enough to prepare for local elections or pass a law to share oil revenues. And in two remaining areas, progress was too mixed to be characterized one way or the other."
Analysts say the measurements used to gauge the benchmarks — a simple satisfactory or unsatisfactory grade — are too vague. In fact, for some benchmarks deemed satisfactory there were warnings that more improvement was needed, or that progress was being made only with substantial assistance from U.S. forces.
Ilan Goldenberg, executive director at the National Security Network, said some of the benchmarks are superficial, such as, one that called for establishing a constitutional review committee. That got a satisfactory mark, but that does not mean there has been any real progress towards hammering out a constitution in Iraq, Goldenberg said.
"Yes, they've created a committee, but the committee has asked for numerous extensions. Even though they've had numerous meetings, they've actually, specifically agreed to table some of the most complicated issues and leave them out," he said.
The report said that the Iraq government did provide three, trained-and-ready Iraqi brigades to help with the Baghdad operations. But Goldenberg said now they are not fully manned, and there are ongoing concerns that Iraqi troops are not always loyal to the Baghdad government.
The progress report indicates that the government has not been able to control militias and that sectarian violence is still rampant. That violence is hampering any efforts at political reconciliation, said Andrew Krepinevich, with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
He said it was unrealistic to think many of the political benchmarks could be reached this quickly because, historically, power in Iraq means seizing it, and holding on to it by any means.
"And, so, after decades and decades and decades of this, the notion that the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, the Shia Arabs can sit down and work out some sort of compromise American style is really a very difficult proposition for them to undertake," Krepinevich said.
President Bush described political progress in Iraq as a "lagging" indicator, meaning it will likely only be achieved after the U.S. military surge is well underway. But Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, said the lack of political progress is more serious than the report suggests.
"This is not really a lagging indicator. It should be a leading indicator because you need progress on a few issues like sharing oil before you can expect to see reconciliation or a lowering of tension," O'Hanlon said.
But there has been little forward movement to push through an oil sharing law, or any legislation to bring former Baathists back into the fold. Some political parties are boycotting parliament, and members of government are refusing to sit down and discuss issues.
Michael Rubin, with the American Enterprise Institute, said there is no real impetus for the various factions to come together, especially if the U.S. commitment to Iraq is shaky.
"If they thought the Americans would be there for 20 years, they might be sitting down and negotiating right now. If they thing the Americans aren't going to be a player in Iraq next year, there's absolutely no incentive to pay attention," Rubin said.
President Bush predicted that those who want to pull out of Iraq will point to the unsatisfactory report card, but he reiterated that this was a preliminary report and that a more comprehensive assessment would come in mid-September.