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Iraq `benchmarks' could give Bush, Congress a chance to compromise

Iraq `benchmarks' could give Bush, Congress a chance to compromise

President George W. Bush and congressional Democrats do not agree about much when it comes to the Iraq war, but one of the areas where they disagree the least is the need to measure the progress of the government in Baghdad. That makes the issue ripe for negotiation in an evolving veto struggle over the war, even though the administration and its critics are fiercely at odds when it comes to how, or whether, to enforce the so-called benchmarks for self-defense and democracy in Iraq's post-Saddam Hussein era.
"The problem is, why tie our own hands?" Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Sunday. "And that's the problem with having so-called consequences for missing the benchmarks," she added, in effect warning Congress not to pass a timetable for a troop withdrawal by another name.
Democrats began laying out their own case in public last week, even before they passed war-funding legislation that Bush has said he will veto.
"If the president doesn't want to enforce the timelines the U.S. Congress has proposed for reduction of the number of troops in Iraq, he should at least be willing to enforce timelines the Iraqi government has set for itself," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said after participating in a White House meeting on the war.
Any serious attempt at compromise will wait until later in the week, after Bush has issued his veto of the war-funding bill and its attached withdrawal timetable. The measure sets a deadline of Oct. 1 for the withdrawal to begin, with a goal of completion six months later.
The president said Friday his veto will be sustained, and no Democrat has stepped forward to challenge that prediction.
Bush also has invited the leaders of both parties to the White House on Wednesday. And he said that once he casts his veto, he will be ready to work with Democrats on a new version that provides money without strings.
Bush is "willing to work with the Democrats on benchmarks," the Republican leader in the House of Representatives, Rep. John Boehner, told reporters last week.
Barring a change in plans, Democrats have signaled they intend to jettison the timeline from the follow-up bill they draft. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and other Democratic leaders insist they will not send the president a blank check to prosecute a war that so far has claimed the lives of more than 3,300 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
Administration officials give Bush credit for injecting the issue of benchmarks into the public debate about the war.
"I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended," he said in a speech in January in which he also announced an increase in troop strength to try to curtail sectarian violence, particularly in the Baghdad area.
"If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people _ and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people," the president said.
He also said the Iraqis would increase their own commitment to quell sectarian violence, and he noted several other promises the Iraqi government had made.
These included approving legislation to share oil revenue among all Iraqis, spending $10 billion (euro735 million) on job-creating reconstruction projects, holding provincial elections, overhauling de-Baathification laws and creating a fair process for considering amendments to the Iraqi constitution.
"America will hold the Iraqi government to the benchmarks it has announced," Bush said.
In his speech, the president did not threaten any specific consequences for the government or any impact on U.S. participation in the war should the benchmarks not be met.
Republicans in the House and Senate, too, have embraced the benchmark concept, along the lines Bush favors.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republicans introduced legislation in February saying that Iraq's political leaders "must show visible progress toward meeting" 11 benchmarks, including those the president laid out.
In the House, Republicans backed a different version that several aides say was intended to signal to the administration as well as the Iraqi government and the public that patience was limited.
It called on Bush to certify every 30 days that the Iraqi government was "fully cooperating" with U.S. efforts in the country in several areas. Among them were purging its security forces of members with ties to insurgents and denying terrorists sanctuaries on Iraqi territory. Iraq also was to have "made demonstrable progress" toward completing a purge of security forces of all members with ties to insurgents, sectarian militias and terrorism.
Democrats inserted benchmarks into the legislation that Bush is expected to veto later this week.
Under the measure, the Iraqi government would be called on to meet standards for developing its own forces, giving the United States the authority to pursue extremists, establishing a militia disarmament program, pursuing reconciliation between Sunni and Shiite Iraqis, revising its de-Baathification program, enacting legislation to allocate oil resources, reducing sectarian violence and protecting minority rights.
The particulars are similar to the benchmarks Bush laid out.
But Democrats went one step further, specifically tying the U.S. military's continued deployment to the Iraqi government's progress.
Under the soon-to-be-vetoed bill, if Bush could not certify by July 1 that Iraq is meeting the benchmarks, the United States "shall commence to redeploy" troops by that date.
Otherwise, the withdrawal would begin on Oct. 1.
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EDITOR'S NOTE _ David Espo is AP's chief congressional correspondent.


Updated : 2021-03-01 09:58 GMT+08:00