US failing on Iraq goals – report

The White House on Thursday played down a congressional report showing Iraq had achieved few of the political and security goals set by Washington, saying the standards were too high to meet.A draft of the report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, said Iraq met only three out of 18 benchmarks, The Washington Post reported.

The findings appeared at odds with a more positive assessment the White House gave in July that Iraq had made progress on eight out of 18 benchmarks.

But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino drew a distinction between the standards for the two reports, saying that the GAO looked at which political and security goals had actually been met, while the White House determined where progress was made.

“I think that if you look at reality on the ground… I think that we have said they have not met the benchmarks,” Perino told reporters.

She urged waiting for an assessment by the US military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker next month when they are expected to testify to Congress on September 10 and 12. The White House will issue a report based on their findings by September 15.

Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said that report would likely show “even more progress” than the administration’s July findings.

The administration’s September report is seen as a potential trigger for a change in its Iraq strategy, although President George W. Bush recently emphasised a long-term US commitment to Iraq and support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

Some Democrats, including candidates for the 2008 presidential election, have called for Maliki’s ouster amid a growing tide of public sentiment against the Iraq war.

Bush has held to his position that pulling US troops out of Iraq too soon would be dangerous for national security because the United States would be seen as weak, allowing Al Qaeda and other extremist groups to flourish in the Middle East.

The GAO report, described by The Washington Post as “strikingly negative” although preliminary, was due to be delivered to Congress on Tuesday.

Bush, under growing pressure to show progress in the unpopular four-year-old war or start bringing US troops home, is urging Congress to give his “surge” strategy that sent more troops to Iraq this year more time to work.

The GAO report draft judged that only one of eight political benchmarks had been met, while two security goals were achieved, the Post said.

It found that two further benchmarks – the formation of governmental regions and the allocation and expenditure of $10 billion for reconstruction – had only been “partially met.” The Defence Department has offered some suggestions to the GAO, including that some of the conclusions be upgraded.

“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.

“The standard by which they (the GAO) are judging the success or failure of our efforts in Iraq is extraordinarily high, some might say unfairly high, impossibly high,” he said.

The GAO draft says that while there have been fewer attacks against US forces in Iraq under the new security plan in recent months, the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians remains unchanged, the Post said.

The GAO report also finds that “the capabilities of Iraqi security forces have not improved” and concludes, overall, that key legislation has not been passed and violence remains high.

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