WASHINGTON -- President Bush meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon today to begin preparing a pivotal report on the Iraq war, even as controversy is growing about the accuracy of the statistics and measures the administration will use to make its case to Congress and the nation the week of Sept. 10.
The high-level military consultations come amid growing political pressure in Washington for a change of course in Iraq, with Democrats and some Republicans, such as influential Virginia Sen. John W. Warner, urging that troop withdrawals begin before Christmas. They also come just days before the official release of a progress report from Congress' investigative arm, the General Accountability Office.
Bush has spent much of the past two weeks urging public support for holding the course in Iraq.
But the war's rising costs and whether to shift strategy are likely to be at issue in today's Pentagon meetings as the service chiefs give Bush what a senior official described as "individual and private" assessments of the effect of the war on their ability to maintain ready forces and on how to best contain the sectarian fighting in Iraq.
It is likely to be a sobering session.
Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army's top officer, each have said that the demands of counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan have prevented them from readying troops for other kinds of military operations.
Their forces are so strained that the United States does not have a "ready brigade" of ground forces on high alert to respond to emergencies, a routine practice since the beginning of the Cold War, the U.S. Army Forces Command said.
At least one of the chiefs privately advised Bush last December against ordering a "surge" of 28,000 troops into Iraq, arguing that it shouldn't be started if it couldn't be sustained. Since then, the Army has found itself so short of troops that only by extending combat tours in Iraq from 12 months to 15 months, a step it ordered with extreme reluctance, could the surge be maintained.
But that will come to an end next spring. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, second in command in Iraq, told reporters last week that the 28,000 surge troops will be called home starting in April as their 15-month tours are completed, and not replaced.
That would leave at most 130,000 American troops in Iraq. Senior officers say privately that the military mission in Iraq will have to be adjusted accordingly, with American troops no longer able to physically occupy huge swaths of territory.
The four-star officers - Conway, Casey, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley - "will provide the president with their unvarnished recommendations and their assessments of current operations," Army Maj. Gen. Richard J. Sherlock Jr., director of operational planning for the Joint Staff, told Pentagon reporters.
Mullen, chosen to replace Pace as chairman next month, also has been critical of the Iraq war effort and its effects on military operations around the world.
The briefings for the president will include the chiefs' assessment of the military's "global force posture" and other issues not directly related to Iraq, a Joint Staff official said. "But the elephant in the room is obviously Iraq," said the official.
The consultations are leading toward the release of a major White House report next month assessing the effects of the "surge" in Iraq. Bush will also confer in the days ahead with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Adm. William J. Fallon, overall Mideast commander, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker. Petraeus, a counter-insurgency expert who designed the tactics currently being used in Iraq, will advise the president on how he intends to manage the war with a smaller force.
That advice is expected to be reflected in the White House report to be released by Sept. 14, after Petraeus and Crocker testify before Congress that week. The report will be a formal assessment of the progress Iraq's government has made toward 18 benchmarks intended to measure security and effectiveness of the government in achieving economic progress and political reconciliation.
But that report, together with a parallel assessment on the Iraq benchmarks by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and a separate report on the status of Iraq's army and national police, are likely only to underscore the difficulty in rating the status of security and political progress in the midst of an especially vicious and complex war, military and civilian analysts said.
All three reports were mandated by Congress last spring as a condition for appropriating funds for the war.
The report by the GAO is set for release Tuesday, while the evaluation of Iraq's security forces, by a panel headed by retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, former commandant and NATO commander, will be released Thursday.
A third report, a quarterly assessment of Iraq required by Congress from the Pentagon, also is due next month.
The Pentagon yesterday rejected the conclusions contained in a draft of the GAO report. According to an Associated Press account, the draft report said the Iraq government has failed to meet at least 13 of the 18 benchmarks.
Defense officials complained that the GAO assigned "pass/fail" grades to the Iraq government, but a better measure was one that rated whether and how much progress was being made.
"Many of the things outlined in the president's benchmark report are ongoing," Sherlock said, "without necessarily having achieved those benchmarks completely."
For instance, he said the government in Baghdad is already sharing oil revenues with other provinces, even though laws governing the distribution of oil revenues haven't been enacted.
Getting 'full picture'
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell told reporters the Defense Department had "made some factual corrections" to the GAO draft report and "offered some suggestions on a few of the actual grades" given by the GAO. The GAO routinely solicits such reviews before its reports are completed.
"The administration's interest is making sure that we get a full picture of what's going on in Iraq," said White House press secretary Tony Snow, urging patience until all the reports are released.
Other analysts, however, said they suspect the benchmarks won't be much help in settling the political storm over the war.
"The situation in Iraq has become so complex that I am skeptical that the 18 benchmarks can really elucidate what's going on," said Brian Katulis, who worked in Iraq with the National Democratic Institute and is now at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.
For instance, while Bush and military commanders have boasted that violence in Baghdad decreased significantly over the summer, U.S. intelligence believes one reason is sectarian "cleansing." That would suggest that decreasing violence signals hardening sectarian divisions rather than the reconciliation that is a major U.S. goal in Iraq.
In many Baghdad neighborhoods, Sunnis have been driven from their homes by Shiite extremists. Where such "population displacements" have taken place, "conflict levels have decreased," said a National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq released last week by the director of national intelligence, Gen. Mike McConnell.
The Pentagon quarterly reports also appear to misstate the level of civilian violence. According to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, the Pentagon's count of attacks on civilians does not include the bloody violence among Shiite militias in southern Iraq.
The Pentagon's statistics on Iraqis killed in the sectarian violence have been inconsistent as well. A year ago, it reported that more than 2,000 Iraqis had been killed in July 2006. In November, the Pentagon changed that figure to 1,200, and in its most recent report, in June 2007, it said just under 1,400 Iraqis were killed in July 2006. A Defense Department spokesman, Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, said he could not provide an immediate explanation.