Republicans and Democrats sparred in Congress on Wednesday as they received a much-disputed report from the Government Accountability Office, assessing the progress of the Iraqi government in meeting eighteen Congressionally-mandated “benchmarks.”
The GAO is a non-partisan, investigative arm of Congress that conducts studies and evaluates government programs at the request of Congress.
The U.S. military sharply criticized the assessment by Comptroller General David Walker for failing to accurately assess progress on the ground against insurgents, and convinced Walker to change the grades he gave the Iraqi government on several of the eighteen security-related benchmarks after reviewing a draft of the report last week.
The benchmarks were established by Congress earlier this year to measure legislative, security, and economic progress of the Iraqi government, and required the GAO to give a pass or fail grade.
Bowing to administration pressure, the GAO agreed belatedly to add a third grade, “partially met.” But that compromise hardly softened the blow of the GAO report card delivered to Congress.
“As of August 30, 2007,” Walker said, “the Iraqi government met 3, partially met 4, and did not meet 11 of its 18 benchmarks.”
That was music to the ears of many Democrats.
Rep. Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee, used the GAO report card on Wednesday to scold the Bush administration over the war in Iraq, and called the troop surge a failure.
“Prime Minister Maliki has run his government like a Shiite factional leader,” Lantos said. “Maliki’s Shiite-first policies have contributed directly to the inability of Iraq’s leaders to reach agreement on the critical issues facing their nation.”
Lantos accused the Bush administration of “cooking the books” by claiming that sectarian violence was diminishing. “While the White House might have us believe that the troop surge is working, it has become manifestly apparent to all objective observers that it is not.”
Those words were mild compared to the criticisms from other Democrats.
Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., suggested that the administration had not merely failed in Iraq, but in its efforts at home to rally the country behind the war effort.
“When a nation goes to war… one would expect the national leadership to mobilize the country in support of such an endeavor. President Bush on the other hand has urged the American people to go shopping and enjoy their tax cuts,” he said.
Ackerman urged his colleagues to cut off funding for the war, drawing quick applause from two women in the hearing room wearing Code Pink t-shirts and top hats emblazoned with anti-war political slogans.
Elsewhere in Congress, members of the left-wing Out of Iraq Caucus led by Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Jan Schakowsky, D- Ill., and Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., issued similar calls to cut off war funding and bring U.S. troops home.
And speaking with reporters from Baghdad, Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said he thought the U.S. troop surge was a “failure” and called for a new U.S. strategy with a dramatic reduction in troops.
But Republicans strategists believe the Democrats may have overplayed their hand.
“Remember that the Democrats pledged a ‘white hot summer’ with demonstrations in the home states of members of Congress who supported the war,” a White House aide told conservative activists on Wednesday.
“Nothing happened. They have made a gigantic mistake. They have politicized the war. When you go to military families with that, you can never go back,” he added.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Republicans fought back with pointed questions directed at GAO comptroller general David Walker.
Former committee chairman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., asked him what criteria he used to “score” the 18 benchmarks, and noted that reports from her own constituents gave a far more positive picture of events on the ground.
Rep. Mike Pence said he was struck by the fact that the GAO made no mention of the most significant development of all, the decision by Sunni tribes to turn against the insurgents.
“I witnessed the Anbar Awakening in my visit there this past April,” he said. “It is an extraordinary development that the so-called Triangle of Death a year ago now has tribesmen, community leaders, who are working hand-in glove with American Marines… and stating publicly that an attack on an American is an attack on an Iraqi.”
A recent United Press International/Zogby poll showed that Americans are divided on Iraq along strict partisan lines, so the Congressional battles are likely to continue even as Gen. David Petraeus makes his much-awaited report on the war next week.
According to the poll, despite recent reporting out of Iraq of U.S. military victories, 66% of Democrats believed the Iraq war is “lost,” as compared to just 9% of Republicans.
Democrats go to Iraq and see failure, and Republicans go there and see victory.
In reporting on her one-day trip to Iraq during the August recess, anti-war Congresswoman Schakowsky said the trip “reinforced my believe that this – the surge has not been a success… and that we have to bring our troops home as soon as possible.”
She said that she remained in the Green zone except for a brief tour in a Black Hawk helicopter “with a machine-gunned soldier holding it outside of the window.”
The military wouldn’t let her delegation travel on the roads with U.S. troops where they “have to drive and encounter IEDs.” Schakowsky added, “I was grateful for that.”
By contrast, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R, Okla., who made his fifteenth trip to Iraq during the recess, traveled to Anbar province, which he said was “now under total control,” and ventured north to Tikrit, the hometown of Saddam Hussein and a long-time Baathist stronghold.
Inhofe, who is an experienced pilot, was sitting in the cockpit when the C-130 taking his delegation to Jordan was fired upon by rockets from the ground. He praised the pilots for taking evasive action, but said the experience was “exhilarating.”
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