Just hours after President Bush addressed the nation citing security and political progress in Iraq as a reason to continue a large military presence there, the administration sent a September Iraq report to Congress that paints a discouraging picture of stability on the ground in Iraq.
As ABC News first reported Thursday night, the administration's benchmark report suggests Iraq has a long way to go toward achieving security, progress and political reconciliation among Iraqi leaders.
The president's report, requested by Congress, found only nine of the 18 Iraq benchmarks are satisfactory, seven are unsatisfactory and two are mixed.
That is only one more benchmark reached than the administration's first report to Congress in July.
Report Finds Half of Benchmarks Have Been Met
In addition, members of Congress are likely to be skeptical of some of the assertions inside the administration's latest report.
For example, the report cites "satisfactory" progress in terms of elections, even though elections have yet to be held and no date has been set. The report may underscore contradictions in the president's argument that additional forces have created breathing room and afforded stability to all Iraqi leaders to work toward political progress.
Congress has been presented with a series of reports on Iraq this summer that have contradicted the administration's assertions that the U.S. strategy in Iraq is beginning to show signs of progress.
However, the White House is suggesting the report doesn't reflect the results Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government is achieving in Iraq.
"Broad context is necessary for assessing the performance of the Iraqi government with respect to the 18 benchmarks," outgoing White House press secretary Tony Snow said in a statement Friday.
Snow suggested significant oil revenues are being distributed by the central government to the provinces "in an equitable manner," progress is being made on a budget, and immunity is being granted to many former insurgents.
"These are precisely the effects the benchmarks were intended to produce, even if the formal benchmarks themselves have not been met," Snow said.
In speeches and appearances outside of Washington, D.C., the president and Vice President Dick Cheney are selling the latest iteration of their Iraq War strategy -- promoting the idea that the troop surge is having success.
"The United States and our coalition are getting things right in Iraq,'' Cheney told an invited audience of about 220 at the Gerald R. Ford Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Tough work lies ahead,'' Cheney said. "But the evidence from the theater of war 6,000 miles away is beyond question: The troop surged has achieved solid results, and in a relatively short period of time."
The president had lunch with marines at the Quantico Marine base in Virginia who are preparing to go to Iraq.
"They're willing to serve to help shape the conditions to make the world more peaceful," Bush said.
"It's in our interest to help Iraq succeed," he said.
Bush Appeals to Nation on Iraq
Bush appealed to the nation in a prime-time address on Iraq Thursday, presenting a strategy that will see a continued U.S. troop presence in Iraq for years to come -- while suggesting that some troops will be coming home and will not be replaced.
Bush said 2,200 Marines are coming home immediately and will not be replaced, and an Army brigade of 3,500 will be out of Iraq by the end of the year. These units were already scheduled to come home, but now, they will not be replaced.
Bush's plan is to withdraw five brigades by mid-July -- approximately 23,000 troops, leaving about 137,000 U.S. troops in place by next summer.
While Bush portrayed the redeployment as a troop withdrawal, there will actually be 7,000 more troops in Iraq next summer than there were before Bush deployed additional forces to Iraq in January as part of a troop surge plan to quell sectarian violence.
However, Bush suggested any troop redeployment will be heavily conditioned on stability in Iraq -- far from the rapid withdrawal of troops wanted by Democratic leaders in Congress.
Bush Envisions Enduring Presence in Iraq Beyond His Presidency
The president made the speech in an effort to buy time for his Iraq war strategy -- and shore up support among wavering Republicans and critical Democrats who have become increasingly frustrated with the lack of political progress and stability in Iraq.
Bush framed the Iraq conflict as he has in the past, as a key component of a broader war against al Qaeda and Islamic extremists.
"If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened. Al Qaeda could gain new recruits and new sanctuaries. Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region," Bush said.
"Extremists could control a key part of the global energy supply. Iraq could face a humanitarian nightmare. Democracy movements would be violently reversed. We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on Sept. 11, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people," he said.
During a lunch with network anchors attended by ABC News' Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos Thursday afternoon, Bush explained that the Iraqi government has said they want U.S. troops in Iraq on a long-term basis.
Bush made clear that the United States will have an enduring presence in Iraq that will go beyond his presidency, but he does not necessarily envision permanent U.S. bases in that country.
The president's speech came on a day when the administration was dealt a major blow to its effort to persuade local tribal leaders in Iraq to cooperate with the United States against al Qaeda in Iraq.
A Sunni tribal leader, Sheik Abdul Sattar, cooperating with the United States against al Qaeda in Iraq, was killed in an improvised explosive device attack near his house in Anbar province.
Congress Weighs Latest Report
The Bush administration's September report to Congress comes after a week of testimony on Capitol Hill by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military official in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, the top diplomat, telling lawmakers that the troop surge strategy has had uneven success.
The president faces an American public increasingly skeptical that the 4-year-old conflict is making the country safer -- something the top U.S. military general in Iraq did little to change on Capitol Hill this week when he said he didn't know whether the Iraq War strategy would make America any safer.
Republican senators have also voiced frustration with the lack of progress in Iraq.
Democrats in Congress lack the 60 votes necessary in the Senate to force the president to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq. However, Democrats are attempting to woo Republicans to force the president to fundamentally change course.
Democrats Effort Legislation to Force Withdrawal
Democrats in Congress are efforting legislation that would force Bush to set firm timetables for withdrawing troops.
Moving toward real withdrawal, should begin "now, not six months from now," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
Reed is a co-author of the various versions of the Democratic withdrawal measure.
Republicans Growing Frustrated With Bush Policy
Other Republicans have voiced concern about the president's troop surge strategy but have so far not said they will vote to force the president to include a withdrawal timetable to any war funding request.
"While I welcome the modest drawdown of our troops that the president has ordered, it is not a sufficient response to the lack of political reform by Iraqi leaders," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "I continue to believe that an immediate change in mission is needed, which would allow a far more significant but responsible reduction in the number of our troops deployed in Iraq. We should not wait another six months to change the mission."
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who said he was working with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., on legislation that would require troop reductions beyond next summer, characterized the troop reduction as a short-term positive development. He said, "Americans need to know there is light at the end of the tunnel well beyond that time frame. . . . America's role in Iraq is not unending."
Is the Iraq War Making the U.S. Any Safer?
One of the Republicans who is increasingly skeptical of the Iraq War strategy is outgoing Sen. John Warner of Virginia, who is retiring after 2008. While he has criticized the president's policy, he has never supported a Democratic withdrawal plan.
"Are you able to say at this time if we continue what you've laid before the Congress here as a strategy, do you feel that is making America safer?" Warner asked Petraeus during a charged session of the Armed Services Committee Tuesday.
"Sir, I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objectives in Iraq," Petraeus answered.
"Does that make America safer?" Warner pressed.
"Sir, I don't know, actually," the general said. "What I have focused on and riveted on is how to accomplish the mission of the multinational force in Iraq."