The White House yesterday issued a new report admitting Baghdad had made almost no new progress in achieving stability and reconciliation between the country's feuding factions, just hours after President Bush argued on national television for a continuing massive US troop presence in Iraq.
The report suggests that over the last two months the Iraqis had advanced on just two of the 18 so-called "benchmarks" to that end. As such, the document underlines how difficult it will be for Mr Bush to convince Americans that political progress is being made in Iraq – claims already undermined by the murder, shortly before he spoke, of a prominent tribal leader in Anbar province allied with the US against al-Qa'ida.
The pacification of Anbar had been trumpeted by the administration as proof that local Sunnis in Iraq were turning against the extremist insurgents. But yesterday more than 1,500 mourners attended the funeral of Abdul Sattar Abu Risha, killed when a bomb exploded outside his house. Government officials described his death as "a national Iraqi disaster".
For Mr Bush, it was a setback that partly overshadowed his prime time address on Thursday evening, capping a spell of frantic activity to show his Iraqi policies were working. During the last fortnight, the president paid an unannounced trip to Iraq 12 days ago, during which he met Sheikh Abu Risha, while earlier this week General Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and the American ambassador Ryan Crocker, testified for two days before Congress. But the exercise has been only a limited success at best. By general consent, the promised withdrawal of over 21,000 troops by next summer has bought Mr Bush another six months to prove the current surge is working, at least in military terms. The force reduction appears to have persuaded wavering Senate Republicans not to desert Mr Bush – thus ensuring that Democrats will not be able to send him legislation demanding a firm timetable for a pullout. But it is unclear how much longer the White House will be able to hold the line if no tangible further improvement is evident by next March, when General Petraeus is due to give another progress report.
The reductions announced by Mr Bush mean that, despite everything, at least 130,000 US combat troops will still be in Iraq in summer 2008 – and that 100,000 or more will probably be there when a new President is elected next November.
Mr Bush also further scaled back US goals. A year ago he was talking of "victory" in Iraq. On Thursday, he spoke merely of "success", with a new watchword of "return on success" for future cutbacks in US strength in Iraq, beyond the unwinding of the surge. Most ominous however is the prospect of a US presence in Iraq stretching not merely into the term of his successor, but for decades ahead.
In his televised address, Mr Bush referred only indirectly to the issue. The Iraqi leadership, he said, has recognised the need for a US military and political presence "beyond my presidency," and had asked for an unspecified "enduring relationship" with America. In a private meeting this week with conservative journalists however, he is said to have compared Iraq to Korea, where US troops have been stationed for more than half a century after the 1953 armistice.
As that realisation sunk in, Mr Bush's claim that both supporters and opponents of the war would be able to unite around the new strategy rang more hollow than ever
Mr Bush's claims of political progress by the Iraqis were described by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, as an "insult to the intelligence of American people."