WASHINGTON — In sharp contrast to the sunny tone that President Bush struck in his address to the nation Thursday night, the White House reported Friday that Iraq's leaders had made little headway over the past two months toward meeting 18 key benchmarks for progress aimed at ending high levels of sectarian violence.
Bush said Thursday that emerging success in Iraq had made it possible for him to start to withdraw troops, beginning with 5,700 who will leave Iraq by December. The president acknowledged that Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government had failed to achieve national reconciliation, but he said progress in local politics would lead to improvements at the national level.
The administration said in July — in the first of two reports required by law — that Iraq had made satisfactory progress toward eight benchmarks, unsatisfactory progress on another eight and the remaining two couldn't be judged because conditions weren't ripe.
In Friday's second report, it found new progress as of Sept. 1 on one of the goals, making progress satisfactory on nine, unsatisfactory on seven and the same two still impossible to judge.
That scorecard sounded more optimistic than one that the Government Accountability Office, the nonpartisan auditing arm of Congress, issued last week, although the reports had different approaches. The Bush administration's report judged whether progress was being made toward meeting the goals; the GAO assessed whether the goals had been met. It found three met, four partially met and 11 not met.
The sole improvement the White House reported since July was based on an agreement by leaders of Iraq's main sects to support a law that would let former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party work for the government. Similar agreements have broken down. Even if this one holds, it still must pass Iraq's Council of Representatives.
Sunni Muslims dominated the Baath Party, and many lost jobs in the military, schools and government when it fell. The new White House report said a law to bring them back fully into Iraqi life was "potentially the most emotional issue being discussed by the government of Iraq."
The White House report said that one goal for which progress remained unsatisfactory was ending the political intervention that blocked Iraqi security forces from going after extremists.
It also said the Iraqi army had made progress toward being evenhanded in enforcing the law, but "much remains to be done in this area." The Iraqi national police, dominated by Shiites, hasn't made progress in rooting out sectarian bias, it said.
Violence between Sunnis and Shiites remains at high levels. Tens of thousands of members of both sects have been forced to flee mixed neighborhoods and settle outside the country or in barricaded communities of their own groups.
In a statement issued with the report, the White House said there were signs of progress on problems that would need national laws passed to achieve the benchmarks, even though the laws hadn't passed. The central government has distributed oil revenues to the provinces, provincial governments are functioning and the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad has granted immunity to "many former insurgents" and brought them into the security forces, it said.
In another development Friday, the State Department's annual report on religious freedom cited barriers to practicing religion in Iraq, including sectarian violence, the fleeing of Christians and other minorities, and the domination of the security services by Iraq's Shiite majority.
"Some government institutions continued their long-standing discriminatory practices" against conservative Sunnis as well as those of the Baha'i faith, the report said. It also cited instances of Christian women wearing Islamic head coverings for fear of punishment if they didn't.
The White House report came out a day after the president said that even success in Iraq would require U.S. diplomatic, economic and military engagement beyond the end of his presidency. He said he'd draw down U.S. forces below what they were in January as conditions improved.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday's White House report showed Bush's surge "is not working" and "it certainly does not justify keeping 130,000 soldiers mired in an open-ended civil war as the president has chosen to do."
Senate Democrats plan to propose legislation next week aimed at speeding the withdrawals, including a measure that would lengthen the time that troops must spend in the United States after war duty before they can be sent back. Another measure would limit the mission of American forces largely to training Iraqis and counter-terrorism.
(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article.)
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The White House report.