WASHINGTON - An independent assessment concluding that Iraq has made little political progress in recent months despite an influx of US troops drew a fierce pushback from the White House yesterday and provided fresh ammunition for Democrats who want to bring troops home.
The political wrangling occurred days before the report was to be released officially and while most lawmakers were still out of town for the August recess - wrangling that reflects the high stakes involved for both sides in the Iraq war debate.
President Bush, who planned to meet today at the Pentagon with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is nearing a decision on a way forward in Iraq while Congress planned another round of votes this fall to end the war.
"It is clear that every objective expert keeps providing the American public with the same facts: that the president's flawed Iraq strategy is failing to deliver what it needs to - a political solution for Iraq," said Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the majority leader.
In a draft report circulated this week, the Government Accountability Office concluded that at least 13 of the 18 political and security goals for the Iraqi government have not been met.
Administration officials swiftly objected to several of the findings and dismissed the report as unrealistically harsh because it assigned pass-or-fail grades to each benchmark, with little nuance.
GAO officials briefed congressional staff on their findings behind closed doors, promising the aides an unvarnished assessment of Iraq when an unclassified version of the report is publicly released Sept. 4.
"The real question that people have is: What's going on in Iraq? Are we making progress? Militarily, is the surge having an impact?" said White House spokesman Tony Snow. "The answer is yes. There's no question about it."
But Democrats and some Republicans say the military progress made in recent weeks is not the issue. If Baghdad politicians refuse to reach a lasting political settlement that can influence the sectarian-fueled violence, the increase in troops is useless, they said.
"By almost every measurable measure of progress, they have not only failed to progress, they have in many cases gone backwards," Representative Jason Altmire, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said after his recent trip to Iraq. "That to me is the most troubling part of the experience that we had - because we can see, on the military side, our men and women are doing what has been asked of them."
The Pentagon and State Department provided lengthy objections to the GAO this week in the hopes of swaying the findings.
Geoff Morrell, Pentagon press secretary, said yesterday that after reviewing a draft of the GAO report, policy officials "made some factual corrections" and "offered some suggestions on a few of the actual grades." He declined to elaborate on what the Pentagon was disputing.
Tom Casey, State Department deputy spokesman, said the GAO should at least note the progress made when ruling that Iraq has failed to meet a specific benchmark.
Democrats are expected to use money needed to fund the war as leverage to bring troops home. The Pentagon has requested $147 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan for the 2007 budget year, which begins Oct. 1.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday suggested that Bush should not be asking Congress to approve "tens of billions more dollars" when independent voices like the GAO find the Iraqis are failing to reach a political accord.
The GAO report is one of several assessments called for in May legislation that funded the war: Retired General James Jones is to brief Congress next week on his assessment of the Iraqi security forces; General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador to Iraq, are to testify the week of Sept. 10. Bush is to deliver his own progress report by Sept. 15.