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Progress on key goals set for Iraq still elusive

Bush administration assessment finds the least gains on the most important objectives.

July 13, 2007|Julian E. Barnes | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration's status report Thursday on the Iraq war gives the Iraqi government an even mix of "satisfactory" and "unsatisfactory" grades, but a closer look provides a more sobering impression: The least progress is being made on the most important goals.

Among the areas in which the administration reports unsatisfactory progress are legislation on sharing oil revenue, provincial elections and the easing of restrictions on government employment for members of the former ruling Baath Party. Adequate progress is reported on less important matters such as forming committees to examine the Baghdad security plan and review the constitution.

Moreover, some of the initial progress cited in the report may be difficult to build on. Initiatives pushed by the U.S. have run aground because of the Iraqi government's limited clout and the sectarian divisions that have riven the country. For instance, there has been little progress in months on the oil law, which earlier this year appeared promising.

Overall, the interim progress report, required by Congress, is an unsparing assessment of advances on the benchmarks over the last six months. It reflects the difficulty of attaining goals set months ago and underscores the uncertainty of the future.

"The security situation in Iraq," the report says, "remains complex and extremely challenging."

But in many respects, the report also downplays the importance of the goals it set out to assess.

Some of the political goals may not be achieved until there is stability and political compromise at the local level, it says.

Iraqi leaders appealed to U.S. officials not to impose deadlines on them and expressed frustration that the list of goals had become a political football in Washington.

U.S. military officials said that the benchmarks laid out by Congress did not adequately measure progress by American forces, including weakening Sunni Arab militant groups and cutting deals with Sunni tribes to help reduce the violence in Al Anbar province.

"Because it is a very narrow set of benchmarks, we think that there are other indicators that we are tracking that are a more fulsome representation of how things are going on the ground," said a senior Defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the contents of the report.

By focusing on the achievements of the Iraqi government, the benchmarks overlook advances by U.S. forces, a senior U.S. military officer in Baghdad said. "These aren't the benchmarks we would have chosen," the officer said.

Many of the goals on which the government earned "satisfactory" marks were at best procedural. But where real political compromise was demanded, results were more disappointing.

On the security front, the report gives the Iraqi government generally satisfactory marks for setting up joint U.S.-Iraqi security stations and for moving more combat troops into Baghdad. But on the harder benchmarks of pushing Iraqi security forces to operate independently and free from sectarian influence, the report says progress has been unsatisfactory.

It has long been a U.S. goal to increase the number of Iraqi security forces that can operate independently. But since January, the number of Iraqi soldiers with that capability has declined, partly because of troops killed in combat and a shortage of officers.

When the new security plan was announced in January, officials said that it was crucial that the Iraqi government give military commanders authority to pursue extremists without political interference. But the report gives the government a unsatisfactory mark for that goal, concluding that "there remains a negative political influence at a variety of levels with evidence of sectarian behavior."

The report also says political authorities continue to "undermine and make false accusations" against police and army officers, suggesting that trumped-up charges are used to drive Sunni officials from the Iraqi security forces. And the government has been unable to ensure that its security forces do not act along sectarian lines.

"Left on their own, many ISF units tend to gravitate to old habits of sectarianism when applying the law," the report says.

The assessment also reflects shifting U.S. priorities. Two benchmarks once regarded as important, amnesty for ex-insurgents and the disarming of militias, were described as inconsequential or impossible to achieve.

"There is no momentum in the government of Iraq toward developing and implementing a comprehensive disarmament program for militia members," the report says. It argues that rather than focusing on disarming militias, the government should make jobs and other economic development programs its priority.

On the political side, the interim assessment reports progress on a number of areas. But on the steps considered most important, progress was slow or nonexistent.

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