Iraq falling behind on 'benchmarks'

The US buildup has not been matched by an equal uptick in Iraqi political action.

By , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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.

Others also find hope in a reshuffled cabinet. "If Maliki can appoint technocrats who are much more qualified and not such troublemakers as Sadr, it could be the best thing for the government and for getting things done," says Henri Barkey, an Iraq expert at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa.

Still, some experts say a strict set of demands is too much for Maliki's year-old regime. "We're asking too much of the Iraqi government in too short a time," says Paul Hughes, an Iraq expert at the US Institute of Peace in Washington. "They still have training wheels on their operations."

Instead of focusing on benchmarks for Iraqi action, the US should be focused on getting right civilian aspects such as reconstruction and social development, says Mr. Hughes, a retired Army colonel who worked on disarmament and reintegration issues in the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003.

"Congress would serve the American people better if it tried to fix the civilian element of our involvement," he says.

Others say the best way to get the Iraqi government moving is to press regional diplomacy, an idea promoted last December by the Iraq Study Group. "Use the regional leverage and that would really bring fear, and maybe then [the Iraqis] will move on and compromise on some of these critical issues," says the Mr. Kubba of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Nevertheless, legislation for sharing oil revenues has been approved by Maliki's cabinet, although it still must pass in parliament. But in any case, Kubba says, too much stock has been placed in the oil issue, when it's really constitutional amendments – as promised to the Sunnis when they signed on to the constitution in 2005 – that are holding up broad reconciliation.

"The emphasis on oil revenue has left the impression that if we give [the Sunnis] their share of oil, they will be quiet. That is not the case," Kubba says. "It's the constitutional amendments that are the crux of the issue, but nobody has moved on this. They are dancing around the issue as if another year is OK, and it's not."

The Sunnis see constitutional reform as key to an equitable political process. So if that can be sorted out, then other legislative goals are more likely to fall into place, according to Kubba. "These benchmarks are in reality the byproducts of a successful political process," he says. "So if you can get the Iraqis together to flesh out differences and work together, then you will get all the benchmarks you want."

For others, though, setting out expectations will remain an important tool for the US to prod action by the Iraqi government. "Benchmarks are important in that they give a signal to the Iraqis that four years have gone by and US patience is not infinite," says Mr. Barkey, also a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "If it lends more oxygen to the fire under Maliki, then it helps Bush say, 'Look, I'm under pressure. You need to produce.' "

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