Little progress made in benchmarks

WASHINGTON - In sharp contrast to the sunny tone that President Bush struck in his address to the nation Thursday night, the White House reported Friday that Iraq's leaders had made little headway over the past two months toward meeting 18 key benchmarks for progress aimed at ending high levels of sectarian violence.

Bush said Thursday that emerging success in Iraq had made it possible for him to start to withdraw troops, beginning with 5,700 who will leave Iraq by December. The president acknowledged that Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government had failed to achieve national reconciliation, but he said progress in local politics would lead to improvements at the national level.

The administration said in July - in the first of two reports required by law - that Iraq had made satisfactory progress toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight and the remaining two couldn't be judged because conditions weren't ripe.

In Friday's second report, it found new progress as of Sept. 1 on one of the goals, making progress satisfactory on nine, unsatisfactory on seven and the same two still impossible to judge.

That scorecard sounded more optimistic than one that the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, issued last week, although the reports had different approaches. The Bush administration's report judged whether progress was being made toward meeting the goals; the GAO assessed whether the goals had been met. It found three met, four partially met and 11 not met.

The sole improvement the White House reported since July was based on an agreement by leaders of Iraq's main sects to support a law that would let former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party work for the government. Similar agreements have broken down. This one still must pass Iraq's Council of Representatives.

The White House report said that one goal for which progress remained unsatisfactory was ending the political intervention that blocked Iraqi security forces from going after extremists.

It also said the Iraqi army had made progress toward being evenhanded in enforcing the law, but "much remains to be done in this area." The Iraqi national police, dominated by Shiites, hasn't made progress in rooting out sectarian bias, it said.

Violence between Sunnis and Shiites remains at high levels. Tens of thousands of members of both sects have been forced to flee mixed neighborhoods and settle outside the country or in barricaded communities of their own groups.