WASHINGTON, Sep 15 (Reuters) A day after President George W Bush cited enough progress in Iraq to justify US troop reductions, the White House told Congress that Iraqi leaders had failed to meet half of their key goals.
The administration's acknowledgment yesterday 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 Iraqis had made satisfactory progress on just nine of 18 political and security benchmarks and unsatisfactory progress in seven. It said it was unable to rate two other targets.
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.
As Bush and top aides kept up a public relations push to rally support for his Iraq strategy, the White House played down the negative side of the latest status report and pointed instead to what it described as encouraging signs.
But House Democratic leader Steny Hoyer accused the 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 on Thursday night in which he embraced recommendations by his top commander in Iraq, Gen David Petraeus, for a limited withdrawal of about 20,000 troops by July.
CONDITIONS ON THE GROUND Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday he hoped the United States could withdraw another five combat brigades - about 20,000 troops - from Iraq in the second half of next year, but cautioned that it would depend on conditions on the ground.
''My hope is that when he does his assessment in March ...
Gen. Petraeus will be able to say that he thinks that the pace of drawdowns can continue at the same rate in the second half of the year as in the first half of the year,'' Gates told a news conference.
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 leaders said Bush was trying to obscure the fact that most of the troops being withdrawn would have left anyway under current deployment timetables, and they demanded a faster, broader withdrawal.
But Vice President Dick Cheney, on the road in Grand Rapids, Michigan, accused critics of ignoring the chaos he said would follow a precipitous US pullout.
Visiting a Marine base in Quantico, Virginia, Bush hammered home the themes of his Oval Office address and urged congressional support. He hopes to prevent further defections by fellow Republicans that could threaten war funding.
Acknowledging pressure from his opponents to bring troops home, Bush insisted: ''Well, now we've got security in the right direction and we are bringing our troops home.'' With Democrats denouncing Bush for what they see as an attempt to buy time for a failed policy, the Iraq status report seemed to provide them with more ammunition.
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 eliminate sectarian bias in the Iraqi 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 brigades to support a security crackdown in Baghdad.
Recent independent assessments have painted a much bleaker picture of a dysfunctional Iraqi government.
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 SZ VP0427