President George W. Bush on Saturday praised what he called “progress and reconciliation” achieved in some Iraqi communities, but pointedly avoided using US government-approved benchmarks in assessing the situation in the country.
“Americans can be encouraged by the progress and reconciliation that are taking place at the local level,” Bush said in his weekly radio address that came less than a month ahead of a crucial review of US military operations Iraq.
The top US military commander in the country, General David Petraeus, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker are scheduled to report to Congress by mid-September on whether efforts to halt sectarian violence and return Iraq to viable self-governance were bearing fruit.
In a likely preview of the account, the president spent much of his address describing what he called “political gains” made by various Iraqi communities.
He pointed out that in Anbar province, local sheikhs had joined with US forces to drive terrorists associated with Al-Qaeda out of Ramadi and other cities.
In the overwhelmingly Shiite province of Muthanna, the president went on to note, the local council held a public meeting, while six banks had been reopened in the city of Baqubah, in Diyala province.
The address also showcased the decision by officials in Ninewa province to establish a commission to investigate corruption.
Bush acknowledged that “political progress at the national level had not matched the pace of progress at the local level,” and benchmarks adopted by the US government as a standard for assessing progress in Iraq had largely remained unmet.
But he insisted that “in a democracy, over time national politics reflects local realities” and “as reconciliation occurs in local communities across Iraq, it will help create the conditions for reconciliation in Baghdad as well.”
The 18 benchmarks, adopted earlier this year, call, however, for sustainable progress in national reconciliation and mending the country’s broken economy as a condition for continued US support.
They include holding provincial elections to ensure greater Sunnis participation in local governments in the Shiite-dominated south and Kurdish-dominated north as well as passage of an oil revenue-sharing law.
The benchmarks also call a reversal of de-Baathification laws to allow former military officers to serve in the new army, amending the Iraqi constitution in the hope of strengthening the unity of the state, and for more equitable distribution of reconstruction aid.
In a report submitted to Congress last month, the White House said satisfactory progress had been achieved only on eight of the 18 benchmarks.
Bush did not change this assessment but promised to continue to “urge” the Iraqi leaders to meet the goals.
While the address did not give any indication the administration planned a military disengagement, The New York Times reported Saturday that next month, Bush intended to announce plans for gradual troop reductions from Iraq, but at levels far short of those sought by his congressional critics.
The White House would argue that this year’s troop increase had succeeded on several levels in providing more security, the report said.
At the same time, the administration will argue that vital US interests in Iraq require a sustained commitment of US forces, said the paper.
Meanwhile, Democratic Representative Dennis Kucinich, who is again running for president this year, urged fellow congressional Democrats to take decisive action and cut off funding for the Iraq war.
“The Democratic leadership of the House and the Senate must finally live up to their responsibility and the promise they made to voters last year to end this war,” Kucinich told an annual convention of Veterans for Peace in St. Louis, Missouri, on Friday.