Congressional investigators have weighed in on the Iraqi government’s progress in meeting 18 benchmarks Congress mandated this past spring when it passed a huge bill continuing the U.S. presence there.

A leaked draft of the report by the Government Accountability Office to be delivered formally next Tuesday is considerably harsher and more pessimistic than the White House’s own report card issued last month.

The GAO found that the Iraqi government had met only three of 18 benchmarks and made some progress on two others. The earlier White House assessment said the Iraqis had met eight benchmarks and made mixed progress on two.

The three benchmarks that the White House and GAO agreed the Iraqi government had met, while important, are hardly likely to get the war won: Establishing joint security posts in 34 Baghdad neighborhoods; establishing committees to support the Baghdad Security Plan; and legislation protecting the rights of minority parties in the national legislature.

The White House stressed that the leaked report card was only a draft; that the importance was not whether technical benchmarks had been met but whether progress was being made; and that in any case the assessment of the war that really counts is the one top commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker are to make in mid-September.

The Washington Post, which obtained the draft report, said it had been conveyed to the paper on behalf of “a government official who feared that its pessimistic conclusions would be watered down in the final version.”

This is not a sin that the GAO, which works for Congress, not the administration, is prey to but it does show the negative effects of the Bush administration’s reputation for fudging reports and findings to support political goals.

But even in the most favorable light the GAO report suggests at best only very modest progress in Iraq. As milestones, the benchmarks show we have a long, long way to go.

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