WASHINGTON – U.S. military and diplomatic officials gave the Iraqi government a satisfactory rating on eight of 18 political and security benchmarks, a mixed rating on two and an unsatisfactory rating on eight benchmarks in a White House report prepared for Congress.
The interim progress report out Thursday — a second one due in September — says progress in Iraq has been good on key security areas such as the deployment of Iraqi forces in Baghdad, the establishment of joint security stations in Baghdad and the increased capability and independence of Iraqi military units as well as a few economic and political matters.
Unsatisfactory progress was cited in a number of political benchmarks, including the passage of a hydrocarbon law, a debaathification statute and electoral reforms. The report also points out challenges of disarming militias and ensuring full Iraqi government control of security operations in Baghdad neighborhoods.
President Bush addressed reporters on Thursday morning, saying that he would take recommendations from commanders on the ground and consult with Congress, but would not bend to those who want to cut and run. He noted that last fall, Anbar province was reported in the media to be all but lost. Today, violence is down and the situation has changed dramatically.
"Those who believe that the battle in Iraq is lost will likely point to the unsatisfactory performance on some of the political benchmarks. Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism," Bush said.
He said he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the Middle East in August.
White House officials emphasize this is an interim report to measure progress in Iraq, and they continue to place emphasis on the September report, which will include the comments and recommendations of Gen. David Petraeus, head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker.
Officials say the report shows that more satisfactory evaluations were given on the security benchmarks as opposed to the political ones, which was to be expected because the strategy was designed to emphasize security first.
Leading into the troop surge that began early this year, the belief was that progress on security, if possible, would help political reconciliation and allow progress in that arena.
The 25-page report, which measures benchmarks laid out by Congress in a funding bill passed earlier this year, says the security situation in Iraq "remains complex and extremely challenging."
"As a result of increased offensive operations, Coalition and Iraqi Forces have sustained increased attacks in Iraq, particularly Baghdad, Diyala and Salah ad Din. Tough fighting should be expected through the summer," the report states.
The report says that Al Qaeda in Iraq has shown "resiliency" with its ability to pull off mass-casualty attacks, largely through vehicle-based bombings, but the report also says that the number of those types of attacks decreased in May and June.
In the report, the administration accused Syria of supplying as many as 50 to 80 suicide bombers per month for Al Qaeda in Iraq. It also said Iran continues to fund extremist groups.
Officials say the decrease could be a result of the troop surge, and "additional U.S. forces into these areas allows us to better combat AQI havens."
The report also predicts heavier attacks in September "in an effort to influence U.S. domestic opinion about sustained U.S. engagement in Iraq." Congress has set its sights on the September report as the to make definitive decisions on the course of the Iraq war.
"When we start drawing down our forces in Iraq, it will (be) because our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it'll be good politics," Bush said.
"The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost and those who believe the fight can be won, and that, as difficult as the fight is, the costs of defeat would be far higher. I believe we can succeed in Iraq, and I know we must," he said.
Expectations for the report were set low earlier this week when news leaked that the Iraqis would fail to meet most if not all benchmarks. With the bar set so low, Democratic lawmakers as well as some Republicans began debating a proposal to pull out most of the U.S. troops in Iraq by April 2008.
Weekly Standard Publisher Bill Kristol said he hoped that lawmakers wanted to win the war in Iraq, especially since the benchmarks they created are artificial. Devised in Washington, D.C., they measure such things as pieces of legislation to be passed by Iraq's Parliament.
"The Democratic Congress hasn't exactly met its benchmarks," Kristol told FOX News. "What's happening on the ground is quite encouraging. I don't want to overstate it, it's a war ... but in the real world in Iraq, as opposed to the artificial benchmark war in Washington, Iraq is getting better."
But Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, said the report shows the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction in Iraq.
"Today's report from the president confirms what many had suspected -- the war in Iraq is headed in a dangerous direction. The Iraqi government has not met the key political benchmarks it has set for itself and Iraqi security forces continue to lag well behind expectations. Our courageous troops continue to bear the burden for securing and rebuilding Iraq, while Iraq's factions fight a deadly civil war," Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement.
"The report reinforces my belief that we must start taking steps to responsibly redeploy U.S. forces from Iraq. Responsible redeployment, which would limit the U.S. military to missions such as counter-terrorism, protecting U.S. Embassy personnel and training Iraqi security forces, is necessary if we expect the Iraqis to take primary responsibility for their country and for their security," added House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo.
The administration's report referred repeatedly to the Iraq Study Group that issued a report last winter that drew widespread praise in Congress. The bipartisan panel said Bush should start handing off the combat mission to the Iraqi forces and pave the way for a drawdown of U.S. forces in 2008. However, it also declared that it may be necessary to surge troops for a while.
"While all of those conditions have not yet been met, and the new strategy is still in its early stages, there are some encouraging signs that should, over time, point the way to a more normalized and sustainable level of U.S. engagement in Iraq, with a decreasing number of U.S. combat forces increasingly focused on a core set of missions, such as those set out by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group," the report states.
FOX News' Mike Emanuel and Anne McGinn and The Associated Press contributed to this report.