Iraq leaders meeting only half of goals - W.House

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WASHINGTON, Sep 14 (Reuters) A day after US President George W Bush cited enough progress in Iraq to justify a limited troop withdrawal, the White House told Congress today that Iraqi leaders had failed to meet half of their key goals.

The administration's acknowledgment of shortfalls in the Iraqi government's performance underscored the challenges Bush faces in selling his strategy to skeptical Democratic lawmakers and an American public increasingly opposed to the war.

In a report ordered by Congress, the White House concluded the Iraqi government had made satisfactory progress on just nine of 18 political and security benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress in seven areas and had been unable to rate two others.

Democrats in control of Congress had insisted on a review of Iraqi efforts to achieve national reconciliation as a condition for continued funding for a buildup of US forces intended to help curb sectarian violence.

Taking a glass-half-full approach, the White House report pointed to what it described as encouraging signs in Iraq.

But House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer accused the Bush administration of ''attempting to paint a far rosier picture of Iraqi progress on key benchmarks than is justified by the reality on the ground.'' The report followed a televised prime-time address by Bush yesterday night in which he embraced recommendations by his top commander in Iraq for a limited withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by July.

Bush said security improvements had made it possible to start bringing troops home, but he defied calls for a dramatic change of course in the unpopular war.

The partial drawdown will roll back troop strength from the current 169,000 to around the same levels the United States had in Iraq before Bush ordered a troop increase in January.

DEMOCRATIC CRITICISM Anti-war Democrats responded with stepped-up demands for a faster, broader withdrawal.

But Vice President Dick Cheney, on the road to help rally support for Bush's Iraq strategy, accused critics of ignoring the chaos he said would follow a precipitous US pullout.

''In all the calls we've heard for an American withdrawal from Iraq, these negative consequences haven't really been denied, they've simply been ignored,'' he said in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

The day after his address from the Oval Office, Bush headed for a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, to keep up a public relations push to sell his Iraq policy.

With Democrats denouncing Bush for what they see as an attempt to buy time for a failed policy in Iraq, the status report seemed to provide more ammunition for war opponents.

It deemed unsatisfactory the Iraqi government's efforts to enact crucial oil-sharing legislation, to increase the number of Iraqi security force units able to operate independently and to get rid of sectarian bias in the Iraq police.

The report gave a satisfactory grade, however, for progress in ensuring the rights of minority political parties, for advances toward easing curbs on former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath party joining the military and civil service and for providing three Iraqi brigades to support a security crackdown in Baghdad.

Previous independent assessments had painted a much bleaker picture of a dysfunctional government making scant progress on reconciliation and curbing violence.

Some of Bush's fellow Republicans have also voiced doubts over his strategy. Republicans lost control of Congress in last November's election, largely due to public disenchantment over Iraq.

Recent polls show Americans 2-to-1 against the war.

Reuters RAR DB2230

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