Iraq falling behind on 'benchmarks'
When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a surprise stop in Baghdad Thursday, a day after the horrendous car bombings in the city, his message was clear: The US commitment to Iraq is not open-ended – and the Iraqi government had better get busy on its side of the "to do" list.Skip to next paragraph
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The nearly three-month-old increase in US troops in Baghdad is still not complete. But US officials are starting to show impatience that a plan designed to give the Iraqi government breathing space for making decisions aimed at addressing sectarian strife is not having much of the desired response.
Indeed, the US "surge" has not been matched by an equal uptick in political action. On key issues like revenue distribution, militias, reconciliation, and constitutional reform, progress appears to be made at an "all the time in the world" pace – even though Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki committed to security steps and political decisions in conversations with President Bush this past January.
As Wednesday's bombings demonstrated, generalized security is still elusive. Some reports suggest that, overall, killings in Iraq are inching back up to last year's highs. But at least prior to Wednesday, the capital did show signs of calmer conditions. Some families, for example, have returned to abandoned homes in neighborhoods where American soldiers have set up camp.
Some officials and experts say it's too early in the new security plan to expect concrete results from the Iraqis. Still, Mr. Bush and congressional leaders weighed the value of at least nonbinding benchmarks for Iraq's political progress when they met Wednesday afternoon to find a solution to their impasse on war funding.
Congress has adopted the idea of benchmarks for Iraqi political progress in exchange for a continued US military presence. Even so, some experts fault the Americans as much as the Iraqis, saying that the United States has not pressured Iraq's political powers in ways that might work.
"I would have thought that after seeing the light, the Iraqis and the Americans would move much faster. But they are still dragging their feet," says Laith Kubba, senior Middle East director at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington and a former senior adviser to past Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari.
While some Iraqi officials insist that real progress is being made behind the scenes, concerns are growing that the slow pace simply allows for events such as Wednesday's that can put off political action even further.
Additional questions have been raised this week by the decision of six ministers loyal to radical religious leader Moqtada al-Sadr to leave the Maliki government. Will that slow the wheels further – or clear the way for some tough decisions to be made?
On a tour of the Middle East, Defense Secretary Gates has told leaders that the departure of the Sadrist ministers could be positive if it resulted in a more widely representative government. That could pave the way for Iraqi action on key reconciliation measures, according to Gates.