WASHINGTON – On the day the White House released a new report showing scant military and political success in Iraq, President Bush met with Marines and said the gains being made in Iraq are allowing troops to come home.
"I told them about my speech last night. I told them that I'd listen very carefully to the recommendations of the military, in particular Gen. (David) Petraeus, and that the plan I announced was that ... based upon on the fact we're making enough success that we can begin bringing some troops home," Bush said, speaking to reporters Monday at the Marine base in Quantico, Va.
The White House told Congress Friday that Iraqi leaders gained little new ground on key military and political goals, a discouraging assessment a day after President Bush said progress justifies keeping a large U.S. military presence there.
The report underscored the difficulty of Bush's argument that continued American sacrifice was creating space for Iraqi leaders to make gains on tamping down the sectarian fighting that leaves Iraq persistently fractured and violent.
The administration's first required report on benchmarks, in July, showed the Iraqi government was making satisfactory progress toward meeting eight of 18 goals and unsatisfactory progress on eight others. Two others couldn't be rated for performance.
Friday's follow-up report to Congress concluded Iraqis have done enough to move only one benchmark — allowing former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to hold government positions — from the unsatisfactory to satisfactory column.
That movement was due to a pact made last month among leading Iraqi politicians from all major sects. Iraqi officials have announced similar deals in the past only to have them fall apart.
"The overarching goal of de-Baathification reform is political accommodation between the Shia and Sunni communities," the report said. "The leaders' agreement combined with the return of former Baathists to civic life is a significant step in that regard."
Bush officials said there hadn't been nearly enough time between the July report and now — just two months — for more improvement. White House press secretary Tony Snow said in a statement accompanying the report that there have been other, equally important developments, including passage of a budget, the sharing of oil revenues among the provinces even without legislation and local reconciliation efforts that could trickle up to Baghdad.
"These are precisely the 'effects' the benchmarks were intended to produce, even if the formal benchmarks themselves have not been met," Snow said.
In a separate report, the State Department concluded Friday that religious freedom has sharply deteriorated in Iraq over the past year. The department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom found violence is not confined to the well-known rivalry between Sunni and Shia Muslims, with worshippers of all faiths targeted for attacks.
In the president's 18-minute address, he sought to mollify war opponents by ordering U.S. troop levels to drop gradually to a point they were already slated to reach. He said, however, that the reductions would start seven months sooner than scheduled, with 5,700 U.S. forces to be home by Christmas instead of leaving Iraq beginning in the spring as originally planned.
Four more combat brigades would pull out of Iraq as currently scheduled by July.
This could reverse the buildup of 21,500 extra combat troops that Bush ordered to Iraq in January, though probably not most of the extra 8,000 support troops sent with them. However, the White House has given sketchy accounts of the math and refused to provide specifics on how many troops would come home by next summer. This year's escalation boosted U.S. troop strength to 168,000, the highest level of the war, from about 130,000 before the so-called surge.
Democrats termed Bush's modest approach unacceptable.
"The president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said in the Democrat's televised response.
When the president announced the buildup, he said it was conditioned on the Iraqis also stepping up — though he attached no consequences if they did not. Their obligations included such previously promised but unmet tasks as sending more and more capable Iraqi fighters into Baghdad, taking on Shiite militias to which the Shiite-led government is sometimes considered beholden, investing heavily in reconstruction projects that help Sunnis as well as Shiites, and enacting several pieces of legislation aimed at promoting reconciliation between warring sects.
The president later agreed to allow lawmakers to codify benchmarks into law. Since then, the administration has sought to downplay their significance, and did so again as it transmitted its latest assessment to a Democratic-controlled Capitol Hill bent on forcing a more dramatic reduction in troop levels.
"What is important is the overall trajectory which, under our present strategy, has begun to stabilize and turn upward, compared to the deteriorating trajectory seen over the course of 2006," the report said optimistically.
The president's speech marked only the latest shift in direction — and rationale and packaging — for a war that has lasted 4 1/2 years and cost a half trillion dollars and nearly 3,800 American lives.
Bush visited a Marine base in Quantico, Va., Friday to reinforce his message over lunch with about 250 Marines, family members and commanders.
At the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Michigan, Vice President Dick Cheney said "the troop surge has achieved solid results and in a relatively short period of time."
Democrats, still unable to muster enough votes to force an end to the war, hope to win veto-proof support for legislation that would require a narrower mission for a presumably smaller U.S. force. They would shift to only training Iraq's military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists.
Bush said in Thursday night's speech that the U.S. engagement will stretch beyond his presidency. But he hinted further reductions were possible before he leaves office, saying the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker will report again in March.
He said his decisions would be guided by the principle of "return on success" — the rhetorical replacement for his oft-repeated condition that coalition forces would only "stand down" as Iraqi troops "stand up."
But his speech was accompanied by another grim and dispiriting piece of news. A prominent figure in a local alliance with U.S. troops against al-Qaida — with whom Bush met last week in Iraq — was assasinated Thursday in Anbar Province. It was a sharp blow to Bush's frequent celebration of military gains in that region as a model for the rest of the country, a theme he repeated Thursday night.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.