WASHINGTON: The Bush administration, which six months ago issued a series of political goals for the Iraqi government to meet by this month, is now tacitly acknowledging that the goals will take significantly longer to achieve.
In interviews this week, administration officials said that the military buildup intended to stabilize Baghdad and create the conditions for achieving the objectives would not be fully in place until June and that all of the objectives would not be fulfilled until the year's end.
A "notional political timeline" that the administration provided to Congress in January in an attachment to a letter from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, had called for most of the objectives to be met by this month.
Four of the significant objectives are final approval of an oil law regulating distribution of oil revenues and foreign investment in the oil industry; reversal of the de-Baathification laws that are widely blamed for alienating Sunnis by driving them out of government ministries; the holding of local elections; and reform of Iraq's Constitution.
A Pentagon assessment of progress in Iraq through the end of last year, submitted to Congress on Wednesday, notes that Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki "has promised to reform his government, beginning with his cabinet and the ministries," but that none of those steps had yet happened. It cited the "passage of a framework" last month for sharing oil revenues among Iraq's ethnic groups as a modest sign of progress, but notes that the last two months of 2006, before Bush announced his new strategy, "saw little progress on the reconciliation front."
The report also described some of what is happening in Iraq as a "civil war" and described this past October through December as the most violent three-month period since 2003.
In interviews, officials said they expected most political progress to be months away. The slower pace of progress puts the administration in a difficult position, at a time of growing congressional criticism of the new strategy, which starts with an increase of more than 20,000 American troops.
The slowness of political progress, officials say, could indicate the need to extend the time the new troops remain on the ground in Baghdad and its suburbs. Congressional Democrats are seeking passage of legislation that would impose a 2008 deadline for withdrawal of American troops, and they are calling for evidence that political benchmarks are being met.
Bush has told congressional leaders that such American demands are part of "a culture of seeking instant results," officials who have met with him said.
Still, a House bill under consideration this week lists benchmarks for Iraqi political progress and would require Bush to certify by July 1 that progress was being made. The bill would basically give Bush and the Iraqi government a deadline of Oct. 1 to meet those benchmarks.
Administration officials have never rescinded the "notional timeline," though the Iraqi government had already missed most of the deadlines by the time Rice gave it to Congress in January. That document listed political achievements that Washington expected would be fulfilled between September 2006 and March 2007; with the exception of the oil law, which awaits final passage, most have not been achieved. American and Iraqi officials had agreed on the notional timeline back in October.
In interviews, Bush administration officials said that the House proposal was too rigid. "The arbitrary setting of deadlines is counterproductive," a senior administration official said Wednesday. "We need to see that they are progressing," the official said, but added that "we don't think rigid deadlines are appropriate."
The Bush administration officials would agree to speak about the so-called benchmarks only on condition of anonymity, because of the politically delicate debate about whether the United States should be imposing deadlines on the Iraqi government. Indeed, even using the words "deadlines" or "timetables" has become politically treacherous.
Part of the problem is that some administration officials are wary of the response from Iraq's governing Shiites if the Americans push too hard, especially on rehabilitating past members of the Baath Party. That wariness is particularly acute because the administration is pushing Iraqi Shiites to bring more Sunnis into the government, as part of the political reconciliation process, at the same time that they are cracking down on Shiite militias.
But in Baghdad, American officials seem increasingly willing to tolerate some of those Shiite militias as long as they patrol their own neighborhoods. Administration officials said they had eased up on parts of the timetable for re-integrating former Baathists, for fear of a Shiite backlash. Immediately after the American invasion four years ago, the United States pursued the opposite course by purging Baathists from positions of power. As part of the recent reversal, administration officials had hoped that Prime Minister Maliki would quickly agree to make room for more former Baathists in the military and elsewhere in government.
"We're holding the Iraqis to their commitments on de-Baathification reform, and they're making progress," another senior administration official said. "But we recognize that pushing some issues too hard or too fast or with rigid timelines can carry unintended consequences — such as intensifying the very sectarianism we all want to dampen."
One Western diplomat in Baghdad said: "We'd like to see Iraq develop a real moderate center. It may not be realistic on this short a timetable."
Philip Zelikow, until December the counselor at the State Department, said part of the delay stemmed from "a recognition that things were worse than people realized."
"Significant parts of the new strategy need to be developed from scratch," he said.
There has been some progress on the political timetable. On Feb. 26, the Iraqi cabinet approved a draft of the oil law. The law approved by the cabinet allows the central government to distribute oil revenues to the provinces or regions based on population, which could lessen the economic concerns of the Sunni Arabs, who fear being cut out of Iraq's vast potential oil wealth by the dominant Shiites and Kurds. But Parliament has yet to approve the law; administration officials said they hoped to see approval in the next few weeks.
The de-Baathification reversal will take much longer, administration officials say. There are four competing proposals on reversing de-Baathification from various political groups, including one from an Iraqi commission that includes President Jalal Talabani, which American officials say is the most promising. But Talabani has been ill, which has slowed down progress on the reversal of de-Baathification.
On local elections, the official said that "Iraqis are working toward the end of the year, and I think that's a very reasonable goal." As for constitutional reform, administration officials say they do not have a timetable for its completion.