WASHINGTON – Congress' research arm has delivered a slightly better but still-grim picture of political and security progress in Iraq following pressure on the agency to revise a draft audit that was crafted to accompany a widely anticipated report from U.S. officials in Iraq.
The Government Accountability Office's independent analysis comes the week before Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker present their findings on Iraqi government success in meeting 18 benchmarks laid out by the U.S. Congress.
The GAO report found that the government in Baghdad has met only three out of 18 goals it set out to achieve: establishing joint security stations in Baghdad, ensuring minority rights in the Iraqi legislature, and creating support committees for the Baghdad security plan.
It made partial progress on four benchmarks -- an upgrade from two after White House pressure. GAO concluded the Iraqis had failed to make progress on 11 of 18 benchmarks.
"Overall key legislation has not been passed, violence remains high, and it is unclear whether the Iraqi government will spend $10 billion in reconstruction funds," said the GAO chief, U.S. Comptroller David Walker in Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Among the benchmarks not met, GAO found that the constitutional review process is not complete, and laws on de-Baathification, oil revenue-sharing, provincial elections and amnesty have not passed; the number of Iraqi army units capable of independent operations had decreased from March 2007 to July 2007; and widespread violence has compromised the government's ability to protect human rights.
The report said it is unclear whether sectarian violence had decreased because "it is difficult to measure whether the perpetrators’ intents were sectarian in nature, and other measures of population security show differing trends."
Even with the slight changes, the White House dismissed the findings as a static representation of events in Iraq.
"Everyone was aware that some progress on the benchmarks could be seen on a number of the benchmarks," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto. "One didn't really have to travel to Iraq to come to that conclusion. I'm not aware that anyone expected the benchmarks to be completed by September."
Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, MNF-I spokesman in Baghdad, told FOX News on Monday that Petraeus will present several statistics in his report to Congress next week that indicate successes since June operations went into full swing.
Among them, security attacks are down 40 percent since the surge began, ethno-sectarian attacks between Shiites and Sunnis are half of what they were in December 2006 before the surge began.
U.S. forces found 4,300 weapons caches between January and August this year, compared to 2,700 in all of 2006.
Bergner said he thought the GAO report used too tough a methodology in determining whether a benchmark had been met or not, leaving little room to examine and evaluate degrees of progress.
Bergner also noted that President Bush's and Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Anbar province this past weekend would have been unthinkable six to eight months ago. Bush said during the trip that some U.S. forces could be sent home if security across Iraq improves as it has in Anbar province, a former hotbed of Sunni insurgency.
Bergner added that it would have been inconceivable for Sunni leader Sheikh Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, to sit down with the Shiite central government as he did Monday while flying with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to Anbar.
The reports are setting the next stage for congressional debate over the usefulness of keeping troops in Iraq. On Tuesday, Democrats said the GAO report showed that Bush's decision to send more troops to Iraq was failing because Baghdad was not making the political progress needed to tamp down sectarian violence.
"No matter what spin we may hear in the coming days, this independent assessment is a failing grade for a policy that simply isn't working," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.
"The independent GAO report released today contrasts sharply with President Bushs stay-the-course Iraq strategy. The GAO report is the latest in a series of assessments to conclude that the Iraqi government has failed to meet nearly every political, economic and security benchmark laid out by President Bush himself in January," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
But Republicans like House Minority Leader John Boehner said Democrats have "invested their political fortunes in failure in Iraq" and are doing whatever they can to find news to support their claims.
"The GAO report really amounts to asking someone to kick an 80-yard field goal and criticizing them when they came up 20 or 25 yards short. Rather than weighing whether or not Iraqis are making progress toward meeting goals, it asked whether or not they've met them,' Boehner, R-Ohio said. "That's an unfair way to judge our troops' progress, and the report was designed to guarantee an unsatisfactory result."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to speculate what Republican senators would do about Iraq before Petraeus and Crocker deliver their much-anticipated report to Congress next week.
McConnell pointedly would not rule out voting on binding legislation to force President Bush's hand, though he said he is "not going to speculate today about, you know, what the view might be next week after we actually get these reports."
McConnell said he wants the United States to maintain a force in the Middle East — possibly even in Iraq — for decades to come, drawing the comparison of such a deployment to the one that is still in South Korea more than a half century after that theater's war.
"We need a long-term deployment somewhere in the Middle East in the future for two reasons: Al Qaeda and Iran," McConnell said, adding, "I hope that this reaction to Iraq and the highly politicized nature of dealing with Iraq this year doesn't end up in a situation where we just bring all the troops back home and thereby expose us, once again, to the kind of attacks we've had here in the homeland or on American facilities."
McConnell said the location of this force "would be up to the generals to recommend", warning, "I think it is an important reminder — even though no one is suggesting nor ruling out military action with regard to Ira — I think it's an important reminder to Iran that, you know, we're in the neighborhood."
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin and Trish Turner and The Associated Press contributed to this report.