WASHINGTON - The Iraqi government is unlikely to meet any of the political and security goals or timelines President Bush set for it in January when he announced a major shift in U.S. policy, according to senior administration officials closely involved in the matter. As they prepare an interim report due next week, officials are marshaling alternative evidence of progress to persuade Congress to continue supporting the war.
In a preview of the assessment it must deliver to Congress in September, the administration will report that Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar province are turning against the group al-Qaeda in Iraq in growing numbers; that sectarian killings were down in June; and that Iraqi political leaders managed last month to agree on a unified response to the bombing of a major religious shrine, officials said.
Those achievements are markedly different from the benchmarks Bush set when he announced his decision to send tens of thousands of additional troops to Iraq. More troops, Bush said, would enable the Iraqis to proceed with provincial elections this year and pass a raft of power-sharing legislation. In addition, he said, the government of President Nouri al-Maliki planned to "take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November."
Congress expanded on Bush's benchmarks, writing 18 goals into law as part of the war-funding measure it passed in the spring.
In addition to the elections, legislation and security measures Bush outlined in January, Congress added demands that the Iraqi government complete a revision of its constitution and pass a law on de-Baathification and additional laws on militia disarmament, regional boundaries and other issues.
Lawmakers asked for an interim report in July and set a Sept. 15 deadline for a comprehensive assessment by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador. Now, as U.S. combat deaths have escalated, violence has spread far beyond Baghdad, and sectarian political divides have deepened, the administration must persuade lawmakers to use more flexible, less ambitious standards.
But anything short of progress on the original benchmarks is unlikely to appease the growing ranks of disaffected Republican lawmakers who are urging Bush to develop a new strategy. Although Republicans held the line this year against Democratic efforts to set a timeline for withdrawing troops, several influential GOP senators have broken with Bush in recent days, charging that his plan is failing and calling for troop redeployments starting as early as the spring.
According to several senior officials who agreed to discuss the situation in Iraq only on the condition of anonymity, the political goals that seemed achievable earlier this year remain hostage to the security situation. If the extreme violence were to decline, Iraq's political paralysis might eventually subside. "If they are arguing, accusing, gridlocking," one official said, "none of that would mean the country is falling apart if it was against the backdrop of a stabilizing security situation."
From a military perspective, however, the political stalemate is hampering security. "The security progress we're making is real," said a senior military intelligence official in Baghdad. "But it's only in part of the country, and there's not enough political progress to get us over the line in September."
In their September report, sources said, Petraeus and Crocker intend to emphasize how security and politics are intertwined, and how progress in either will be incremental. In that context, the administration will offer new measures of progress to justify continuing the war effort.
"There are things going on that we never could have foreseen," said one official, who noted that the original benchmarks set by Bush six months ago -- and endorsed by the Maliki government -- are not only unachievable in the short term but also irrelevant to changing the conditions in Iraq.
As they work to put together the reports due to Congress next week and in September, these officials and others close to Iraq policy recognize that the administration is boxed in by measurements that were enshrined in U.S. law in May.
"That is a problem," the official said. "These are congressionally mandated benchmarks now." They require Bush to certify movement in areas ranging from the passage of specific legislation by the Iraqi parliament to the numbers of Iraqi military units able to operate independently. If he cannot make a convincing case, the legislation requires the president to explain how he will change his strategy.
Top administration officials are aware that the strategy's stated goal -- using U.S. forces to create breathing space for Iraqi political reconciliation -- will not be met by September, said one person fresh from a White House meeting. But though some, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have indicated flexibility toward other options, including early troop redeployments, Bush has made no decisions on a possible new course.
"The heart of darkness is the president," the person said. "Nobody knows what he thinks, even the people who work for him."
Mixed Security Results
Military commanders say that their offensive is improving security in Baghdad. "Everything takes time, and everything takes longer than you think it's going to take," Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which is fighting south of Baghdad, said Friday. He added: "There is indeed room for optimism. I see progress, but there needs to be more."
Yet the month of May, which came before the Phantom Thunder offensive began, was the most violent in Iraq since November 2004, when U.S. and Iraqi forces fought a fierce battle to retake Fallujah. That intensity promises to continue through the summer. "I see these aggressive offensive operations . . . taking us through July, August and into September," Lynch said.
Not even the most optimistic commanders contend that the offensive is allowing for political reconciliation. At best, Petraeus is likely to report in September, security will have improved in the capital, perhaps returning to the level of 2005, when the city was violent but not racked by low-level civil war.
More significant is whether that slight improvement in security can be built upon. Regardless of what decisions are made in Washington and Baghdad, the U.S. military cannot sustain the current force levels beyond March 2008 because of force rotations. Long-term holding of cleared areas will fall to Iraqi soldiers and police officers.
Because of corruption and mixed loyalties, a Pentagon official said about the Iraqi police, "half of them are part of the problem, not the solution." The portrait officials paint of the Iraqi military is somewhat brighter. "These guys have now been through some pretty hard combat," said a senior administration official. "They're in the fight, not running from it.
"But can they do it without us there? Almost certainly not," the official said.
Even if U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies are able to hold Baghdad and the surrounding provinces, noted the intelligence official, there is a good chance that security will deteriorate elsewhere because there are not enough U.S. troops to spread around. As U.S. troop numbers decrease, he said, it is possible that by sometime next year "we control the middle, the Kurds control the north, and the Iranians control the south."
A Hurdle to Progress
Last month, Iraq's largest Sunni political grouping announced that its four cabinet ministers were boycotting the government and that it was withdrawing its 44 members from parliament. The immediate cause was the arrest of a Sunni minister on murder charges and a vote by the Shiite-dominated legislature to fire the Sunni Arab speaker.
The withdrawal poses a serious problem for short-term U.S. goals. A new law to distribute oil revenue among Iraq's sectarian groups -- seen by U.S. officials as the best hope for a legislative achievement before September -- reached parliament last week after months of delay. Although the Shiite and Kurdish blocs could pass it, the absence of the Sunnis would make any victory meaningless.
U.S. officials despair of any timely progress on the oil law. "I suppose they'll pass it when they damn well want to," one official said.
Plans to hold provincial elections, envisioned to provide more power to Sunnis who boycotted a 2005 vote, have grown more complicated. As Anbar tribal chieftains have emerged to help fight al-Qaeda, they have also demanded more political power from traditional Sunni leaders. In southern Shiite areas, Maliki's Dawa organization continues to vie with the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest bloc in the Shiite alliance that dominates Iraq's parliament, while both fear the rising power of forces controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"In mixed areas such as Baghdad," a U.S. official said, "the Sunnis are worried that the Shiites will just clean up again even if [Sunnis] participate this time, because so many Sunnis" have fled sectarian violence in the capital.
Late last year, amid strong doubts about Maliki's leadership capabilities, senior White House officials considered trying to engineer the Iraqi president's replacement. But most have now concluded that there are no viable alternatives and that any attempt to force a change would only worsen matters.
Instead, U.S. officials in Baghdad are engaged in a complicated hand-holding exercise with Iraqi leaders, and are striving for small gains rather than major advancement. The main example of success they cite is agreement reached by the top Shiite, Sunni and Kurd officials in the government to appeal for calm after last month's bombing of the Shiite shrine in Samarra.
Officials are encouraged by the growing numbers of local Sunni officials and tribal leaders in Anbar striving to wrest political and security control from al Qaeda in Iraq. Bush has also highlighted the importance of such local efforts. "This is where political reconciliation matters most," he said in a speech last month, "because it is where ordinary Iraqis are deciding whether to support new Iraq."
But officials caution that this transformation is no substitute for a national Iraqi identity, with unified leadership in Baghdad. Maliki's Shiite-dominated government must continue to reach out to Anbar "and give these emerging tribal forces status, adopting them," a U.S. official said.
"Trying to do the local initiative stuff and having that be the whole story does not advance the process," he said.
Warnings on Withdrawal
Facing increased public disapproval and eroding Republican support, Bush has stepped up his warnings that a sudden U.S. withdrawal would allow al-Qaeda or Iran -- or both -- to take over Iraq. What is more likely, several officials said, is a deeper split between competing Shiite groups supported in varying degrees by Iran, and greater involvement by neighboring Arab states in Sunni areas battling al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Kurdish region, officials said, would become further estranged from the rest of Iraq, and its tensions with Turkey would increase.
"I can't say that al-Qaeda is going to take over, or that Iran is going to take over," an official said. "I don't think either are true. But I do think that a lot of very, very bad things would happen." If the administration decided to have troops retreat to bases inside Iraq and not intervene in sectarian warfare, he said, the U.S. military could find itself in a position that "would make the Dutch at Srebrenica look like heroes."
For its part, the military has calculated that a veto-proof congressional majority is unlikely to demand a full, immediate withdrawal. But however long the troops remain, and in whatever number, the military intelligence official said, they see a clear mission ahead. "We're going to get it as stable as we can, with the troops we have, and in the time available. And then, we'll back out as carefully as we can," the official said.
Staff writer Robin Wright contributed to this report.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company