Violence in Iraq remains high, fewer Iraqi security forces are capable of acting independently, and the Baghdad legislature has failed to reach major political agreements needed to curb sectarian violence, says a report released Tuesday.
The study by the Government Accountability Office is a blunt assessment that challenges President Bush's findings on the war as he prepares to announce plans for the U.S. military campaign, which has cost the lives of more than 3,700 U.S. troops since it began in 2003.
Earlier this week, Bush said some U.S. forces could be sent home if security across Iraq improves as it has in Anbar province, a former hotbed of Sunni insurgency.
The White House dismissed GAO's findings as a static view of progress in Iraq, despite its successful efforts to temper some of the more minor findings in the report. After receiving substantial resistance from the White House, the GAO determined that Iraq has partially met four out of 18 political and security goals, two more than identified in an earlier draft report.
But GAO stuck with its original contention that only three goals had been achieved while 11 had failed. The goals met include establishing joint security stations in Baghdad, ensuring minority rights in the Iraqi legislature and creating support committees for the Baghdad security plan.
"Everyone was aware that some progress on the benchmarks could be seen on a number of the benchmarks," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "One didn't really have to travel to Iraq to come to that conclusion. I'm not aware that anyone expected the benchmarks to be completed by September."
U.S. Comptroller David Walker said Congress should debate whether U.S. troops are there to fight al Qaeda or if their purpose is to provide security to the general population.
"They're fundamentally different things," he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. "I think Congress ought to have a debate . . . what are we going to do and what are going to try to accomplish?"
GAO's findings paint a bleaker view of progress in Iraq than offered by Bush in July and comes at a critical time in the Iraq debate. So far, Republicans have stuck by Bush and staved off Democratic legislation ordering troops home. But many, who have grown uneasy about the unpopularity of the war, say they want to see substantial improvement in Iraq by September.
Next week the top military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, are scheduled to brief Congress.
"While the Baghdad security plan was intended to reduce sectarian violence, measuring such violence may be difficult since the perpetrator's intent is not clearly known," GAO says in its report. "Other measures of violence, such as the number of enemy-initiated attacks, show that violence has remained high through July 2007."
Republican leaders on Tuesday showed no signs of wavering in their support for Bush.
"The GAO report really amounts to asking someone to kick an 80-yard field goal and criticizing them when they came up 20 or 25 yards short," said House GOP leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters he would like to ensure a long-term U.S. presence in the Middle East to fight al Qaeda and deter aggression from Iran.
"And I hope that this reaction to Iraq and the highly politicized nature of dealing with Iraq this year doesn't end up in a situation where we just bring all the troops back home and thereby expose us, once again, to the kind of attacks we've had here in the homeland or on American facilities," said McConnell.
Democrats said the GAO report showed that Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq was failing because Baghdad was not making the political progress needed to curb sectarian violence.
"No matter what spin we may hear in the coming days, this independent assessment is a failing grade for a policy that simply isn't working," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
The report does not make any substantial policy recommendations, but says future administration reports "would be more useful to the Congress" if they provided more detailed information.
Earlier this year, Bush sent 30,000 extra troops to Iraq to enhance security in Baghdad and Anbar province. In a congressionally mandated progress report released by the White House in July, Bush judged that Baghdad had made satisfactory progress in eight of the 18 benchmarks. In five of those eight areas, GAO determined that Iraq had either failed or made only partial progress.
The disparity is largely due to the stricter standard GAO applied in preparing the report. GAO used a "thumbs up or thumbs down" approach in grading Baghdad, while Bush's assessment looked at whether Iraq was achieving progress. For example, Bush said Iraqi politicians had made satisfactory progress in reviewing its constitution, while GAO ruled they had failed because the process was not complete.
The State Department and Defense Department reviewed the report before its release. Officials interviewed last week, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the study had not been released, said the administration disputed GAO's conclusion 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.
In the final report released Tuesday, GAO marked those two benchmarks as "partially met" and alludes to resistance it received from the Pentagon.
For example, GAO said it found that despite increased military operations in Baghdad, "temporary safe havens still exist due to strong sectarian loyalties and militia infiltration of security forces." The Defense Department countered that the recent troop buildup had significantly reduced the number of safe havens inside Baghdad and in Anbar and Diyala provinces.
Regarding the deployment of the three Iraqi brigades, GAO found that of the 19 Iraqi units supporting Baghdad operations only five had performed well. The remaining units experienced problems with lack of personnel or equipment.
Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Walker acknowledged that GAO softened its assessment of the two benchmarks but said it did so because of the facts available and not any pressure by the administration.