WASHINGTON The White House on Thursday played down a congressional report showing Iraq had achieved few of the political and security goals set by Washington, saying the standards were too high to meet.
A draft of the report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said Iraq met only three out of 18 benchmarks, The Washington Post reported. The report is to be delivered to Congress on Tuesday.
The findings appeared at odds with a more positive assessment the White House gave in July that Iraq had made progress on eight out of 18 benchmarks.
But the White House drew a distinction between the standards for the two reports, saying that the GAO looked at which political and security goals had actually been met, while the administration's assessment was about progress being made.
"It's no secret that many of the benchmarks have not been met," White House spokesman Tony Snow said.
"If you're trying to do an overall judgment on what's going on in Iraq, the idea that somehow your standard is everything completed or nothing completed seems to me to be a pretty high standard to meet.
"On the other hand, if you're trying to figure out are you making progress toward the goals that you have set out, that's probably the proper way to look at it," he said.
Democrats said the reported GAO findings bolstered their argument that the United States must withdraw combat troops from Iraq and refocus its war on terrorism.
"The forthcoming GAO report offers a clear assessment that a new direction in Iraq must begin immediately, before more American lives are lost and more taxpayer dollars wasted," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The Defense Department has offered suggestions that it said could change some of the report's findings.
"We have provided the GAO with information which we believe will lead them to conclude that a few of the benchmark grades should be upgraded from 'not met' to 'met'," said Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.
The White House urged waiting for an assessment by the U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker next month when they are expected to testify to Congress on September 10 and 12.
A White House report based on their findings will be sent to Congress by September 15 and would likely show "even more progress" than the July assessment, Morrell said.
The administration's September report is seen as a potential trigger for a change in its Iraq strategy, although President George W. Bush recently emphasized a long-term U.S. commitment to Iraq and support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Some Democrats, including candidates for the 2008 presidential election, have called for Maliki's ouster amid a growing tide of public sentiment against the Iraq war.
Bush has held to his position that pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq too soon would be dangerous for national security because the United States would be seen as weak, allowing al Qaeda and other extremist groups to flourish in the Middle East.
The National Security Network disputed claims that increased U.S. troop levels had resulted in a decline in violence in Iraq and wrote a letter signed by eight foreign policy experts to congressional leaders to urge an inquiry into how the government compiled those statistics.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Gray, Richard Cowan, Sue Pleming)