President Bush said today that talk of troop withdrawals did not at this time constitute the “real debate” on Iraq, as his administration released an assessment report this morning asserting that the Iraqi government has shown satisfactory performance on a number of the 18 benchmarks for progress in political and security fronts.
The report, which also said it would take time before a trend could be measured on a number of other key indicators and forecast a possible rise in insurgent activity in the coming months, was released by the White House before President Bush’s news conference, which began at 10:30 a.m.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Bush said that progress has been satisfactory in eight areas, including the military realm and modernization of Iraqi forces, while eight other areas of focus needed more work, such as in preparations for local elections.
In two areas, progress was too mixed to be characterized, Mr. Bush noted.
Mr. Bush sought to reiterate his policies in Iraq, and to deflect the discussion from troop withdrawal. “This is not the real debate,” he said.
He said that support for the Iraqi government and sustained military pressure must be increased at this “crucial moment,” as troops work to defeat Al Qaeda and other extremists; and thereby create the conditions allowing American forces to return home. Asked at the news conference why he was resistant to the idea of a change of course in Iraq, which has found wide support among Americans in recent polls, Mr. Bush said he was not surprised that there was deep concern. “I believe we can succeed,” he said, “and I believe we are making security progress that will enable the political track to succeed as well.”
The report also forecast a rise in attacks by insurgents in the coming months.
It said that Al Qaeda in Iraq, a local insurgent group that has claimed a loose affiliation with the Al Qaeda of Osama bin Laden’s network, would probably step up its attacks in the coming months.
“The surge of additional U.S. forces into these areas allows us to better combat AQI and other terrorists,” the report said. “We should expect, however, that AQI will attempt to increase its tempo of attacks as September approaches, in an effort to influence U.S. domestic opinion about sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq.”
On the political front, the report said that significant progress had been made on both substantive issues and technical details in the constitutional review process, and it gave a mixed assessment on several aspects of the elections commission.
There has been a lack of satisfactory progress on de-Ba’athification, it said.
“This is among the most divisive political issues for Iraq, and compromise will be extremely difficult,” the report said. “Given the lack of satisfactory progress, we have not achieved the desired reconciliation effect that meaningful and broadly accepted de-Ba’athification reform might bring about.”
There has also been unsatisfactory progress on equitable distribution of oil and gas revenue, the report said.
But it praised the Iraqi government’s quick reactions to condemn major attacks, such as the recent one in Samara last month.
While the White House report noted progress in the military realm, with an overall decrease in the numbers of Iraqi civilians killed in sectarian violence and in casualties from car and truck bomb blasts, some of the benchmarks have not been met in that section, such as improvements in the ability and political neutrality of the Iraqi security forces and the Iraqi government.
It largely pinned any further gains on increased troop activity in the coming months, capitalizing on the troop surge.
“Tough fighting should be expected through the summer as Coalition and Iraqi Forces seek to seize the initiative from early gains and shape conditions for longer-term stabilization,” the report said. “These combined operations, named Operation Phantom Thunder, were launched on June 15, 2007, after the total complement of surge forces arrived in Iraq. The full surge in this respect has only just begun.”
The administration’s decision to qualify many of the political benchmarks will enable it to present a more optimistic assessment than if it had provided the pass-fail judgment sought by Congress when it approved funding for the war this spring.
The administration officials who provided details of the draft report, in advance of its official release, to The New York Times, insisted on anonymity, partly to rebut claims by members of Congress in recent days that almost no progress had been made in Iraq since President Bush altered course by ordering the deployment of about 30,000 additional troops earlier this year.