WASHINGTON - The mixed progress report on Iraq that the White House submitted to Congress this week included several grim assessments of the Iraqi government that contrasted with the more upbeat public statements of President Bush, his top aides and public White House briefing materials in the past few weeks.In several recent cases, the White House discussed progress toward benchmarks that the review found unsatisfactory.
Two weeks ago, when a reporter asked Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, for "any signs they are making progress in any way," he said, "We do know that they are obviously working toward oil law and distribution laws," and added, "but it's a parliamentary process." The Americans and the Iraqis consider the proposed Iraqi law to distribute evenly oil revenues throughout the country to be a crucial salve for internal division.
When the reporter followed up by saying, "That doesn't sound like any progress," Mr. Snow responded, "It may not, but on the other hand, it could."
A few weeks earlier, when a reporter traveling with Mr. Bush in Europe asked him if he had seen any progress toward national reconciliation in Iraq, he said, "Yes, look, they're close to getting an oil deal done."
But in addressing progress toward the oil law, the report concluded, "The current status is unsatisfactory, but it is too early to tell whether the government of Iraq will enact and implement legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources to all Iraqis."
The report said, "The effect of the limited progress toward this benchmark has been to reduce the perceived confidence in, and effectiveness of, the Iraqi government."
That apparent contradiction highlights the difficulties the White House is facing in balancing the president's desire to rally a pessimistic public behind the war effort with his political need to demonstrate that he is following a realistic approach, after years of optimistic predictions from the administration and its allies that did not bear out.
In interviews on Friday, White House officials said it also reflected the difference between progress, of which they said there were signs, and the achievement of goals, for which the results were more mixed.
In all, the report, which was mandated by Congress as a preliminary analysis of the success of Mr. Bush's latest Iraq strategy, gave unsatisfactory marks to eight of the 18 benchmarks identified as fair standards upon which to assess progress. The report gave eight satisfactory marks and said it was too early to determine progress for two benchmarks. Many of the satisfactory grades were on military and security matters. Many of the unsatisfactory ones were given to measures meant to foster political reconciliation, including a proposed "de-Baathification" law to set conditions for some Saddam Hussein-era officials to return to government posts.
In a speech in Washington in early May, Mr. Bush said: "Leaders have taken initial steps toward an agreement on de-Baathification policy. That's an important piece of reconciliation that we think ought to go forward."
On May 23, Mr. Bush struck a more demanding tone, saying: "The Iraqi government has a lot of work to do. They must meet its responsibility to the Iraqi people and achieve benchmarks it has set, including adoption of a national oil law, preparations for provincial elections, progress on a new de-Baathification policy."
But for the past several months, he and other administration officials have said that the Iraqis deserve patience, as even the United States Congress has been slow to enact new laws of national import. The report offered a less forgiving assessment: "The Government of Iraq has not made satisfactory progress toward enacting and implementing legislation on de-Baathification reform." It also said, "Given the lack of satisfactory progress, we have not achieved the desired reconciliation effect that meaningful and broadly accepted de-Baathification reform might bring about."
The report expressed dissatisfaction on a focal benchmark, the ability of Iraqi security forces to act efficiently without American help, saying, "The Iraqi government has made unsatisfactory progress toward increasing the number of Iraqi security forces units capable of operating independently."
Yet in a news release given to reporters on June 28, two weeks before the report was made public, the White House said it was encouraged by improvements in the security forces, declaring, "The Iraqi security forces are growing in number, becoming more capable, and coming closer to the day when they can assume responsibility for defending their own country."
Gordon D. Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, which oversaw the drafting of the report, said that the Congressional report required the White House to take a snapshot in time, and that developments in Iraq appeared different from one moment to the next.
"For example, the oil law has not been passed, so it was deemed unsatisfactory," he said. "But over the course of the last six months, when it moved through the various legislative steps after starting from nothing, those were signs of progress."
© 2007 The New York Times