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StateSide:Policy
Analysis
"Progress Report": Mixed, at Best
Spin Battle for Inconclusive Benchmarks; No Relief for 2008-Wary GOP Lawmakers
07/12/2007 06:28 AM ET
A US soldier takes a combat position as he approaches a truck during a patrol at an area in the Iraqi Tamim Province, 07 July 2007.
Photo by Joseph Krauss/AFP.
A US soldier takes a combat position as he approaches a truck during a patrol at an area in the Iraqi Tamim Province, 07 July 2007.

At the two-month mark since the latest Beltway battle over funding Iraq operations, a required Bush administration report will “declare progress” in several areas in which Congress has required the Bush administration to verify Iraq’s progress, according to recent media reports citing high-level US officials.

Based on pre-release coverage, it appears that those in the US who are already committed to either pro- or anti- positions on current Iraq policy will not find a great deal in the July report to force a reevaluation of their positions. In the larger political battle, those looking to buttress their support of Bush policies will find enough “progress” to cling to until September’s four-month report is released, and yet those looking for ammunition to use against the Bush administration in the debate over Iraq policy will find that as well.

However, the report -- elements of which have been made known in a careful high-level leak campaign -- will be more interesting for what it does not contain: There are no major breakthroughs to report that could arrest the general downward trend in the Bush administration’s vulnerable position on the Iraq war.

In that regard, the July progress report could represent the start of a turning point for a key group on Capitol Hill: Republicans concerned about associating too closely with unpopular Bush policies as the 2008 elections draw nearer.

If the already heavily spun July report can be taken as proof of anything, it will show that the cavalry will not coming to rescue this embattled set of GOP legislators. With the additional “surge” troops now fully deployed, the report makes clear that the Bush administration can offer only arguably mixed progress -- at best -- and many in the GOP are aware that “more of the same” will be a losing formula for 2008.

Three major benchmarks for the Iraqi government’s progress have topped Iraq observers’ watch lists as assumed indicators of political reconciliation in Iraq: Reform of the Iraqi constitution, the reversal of the de-Ba'thification law, and the enactment of laws governing the Iraqi hydrocarbon sector and revenues derived from it.

It will be difficult for the US and Iraqi governments to claim success on any of these "big three" counts. However, for the rest of the 18 benchmarks, the spin battle is already underway.

On the first of the “big three” benchmarks, “Forming a Constitutional Review Committee and then completing the constitutional review,” Iraq’s constitutional review process has been at impasse since the deadline mandated in the constitution for amending the document expired in May.

Deputies involved in the committee hit upon a formula that would temporarily fulfill the formal requirements of the constitution for implementing the amendment process, but without resolving the substantive disputes between the political forces in Parliament.

As reported earlier, unresolved constitutional sticking points include:

- The right of provinces to “regional” status with greater autonomy. Some Sunni Arab politicians are concerned that their constituents will be at a disadvantage because they are more likely to live in oil-scare areas.

- The future of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Article 140 of constitution calls for a referendum by the end of the year to decide whether it should become part of the autonomous region of Kurdistan.

- Whether Iraq should be described as an Arab country as some Sunni lawmakers have demanded.

- Whether to reduce the powers of the prime minister, and give more power to the president and his two deputies.

Advance leaks have indicated that the Bush administration will claim mixed progress on this benchmark, but it will be difficult to tie the formal filling of the procedural deadline to the political reconciliation that this benchmark is meant to ensure.

As for the second of the “big three” benchmarks, “Enacting and implementing legislation on de-Ba'athification,” the US and Sunni Arab lawmakers have been pushing for a reversal of the de-Ba'thification law, on the basis that the barring of former Ba’th Party members from public life and government jobs unfairly punishes many who joined the party for nonpolitical reasons, especially among the Sunni Arab community.

Debate about reforming the law has been stalled since a US-backed proposal was scuttled in April, meeting against the skepticism or outright opposition of several powerful players, including the Sadrist current, Ayatollah Sistani, and Iraqi officials currently administering the de-Ba'thification program.

According to advance leaks, even the Bush administration will not claim success on this front.

The same is true for the third of the big three, which reads as follows:

Enacting and implementing legislation to ensure the equitable distribution of hydrocarbon resources of the people of Iraq without regard to the sect or ethnicity of recipients, and enacting and implementing legislation to ensure that the energy resources of Iraq benefit Sunni Arabs, Shia Arabs, Kurds, and other Iraqi citizens in an equitable manner.

A US-backed oil law has been circulating in Iraq for months. A draft version cleared the Iraqi cabinet, again, last week. Yet again, the draft proposal has been crippled by opposition from key players on opposing sides of the debate, with nationalists such as ex-PM Iyad Allawi’s List and the Sadrist current and Sunni Arab parliamentarians in particular expressing skepticism over the measure, and the Kurdish regional authorities -- from the opposite side of the debate -- also wary over the most recent version of the oil law. (For IraqSlogger’s full coverage of oil-related issues, click here.)

Although it will be difficult for the Bush administration to show progress on the “big three,” the other 15 benchmarks on the list will be where the major struggle to spin the benchmarks occurs, as they are either of much lower political profiles in the US debate, or very difficult to measure in a way that would compel consensus over the direction of the policy.

For example, on the question of “sectarian violence” and “militia control of local security,” supporters of current policy will point to indications that Iraqi civilian deaths were lower in June than in previous months, while detractors will point to the spectacular violence that continues to wrack the country, the continuing forced displacement of thousands of Iraqis, to the statistical unreliability of body counts in Iraq, and to the inconclusiveness of a one-month downward trend.

The second part of that same benchmark, "reducing militia control of local security," will also depend on what part of the country supporters or detractors of US Iraq policy survey. In Baghdad, out of 457 zones demarcated by US commanders, only 146 were found to be under control by US or Iraqi forces in a classified report issued by US commanders after three months of the surge. At the same time, supporters of US policy will point to the zones under US or Iraqi control and to successes in Anbar province based on US alliance with tribal-based militias to reduce al-Qa'ida’s presence in much of the province.

On another benchmark, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has floated the idea of holding provincial elections before the end of 2007, but no date has been set for this predominantly Sunni Arab demand. Again, this will provide ammunition to those already in the pro- and anti-Bush policy camps, but will not assuage those in the GOP worried about 2008 looking for a slam-dunk case to justify close association with the Bush Iraq policies.

The final July report will be a classified document distributed to Congress, but the spin battle will not be any less intense. However, for GOP fence-sitters torn between party loyalty and 2008, the handwriting may already be on the wall.

For the New York Times cheatsheet of the anticipated Bush administration conclusions in the July report, click here, and see also the Times article on the Bush administration’s pre-report spin.

The 18 benchmarks are listed here, and IraqSlogger readers are invited to submit their own evaluations of the progress via by clicking the “Tips, Questions and Suggestions” link in Slogger’s left sidebar.

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