Washington -- As Congress opened a monthlong showdown with President Bush over Iraq, Senate war critics yesterday demanded evidence that the security improvements claimed by the White House could be sustained once American forces hand off the task of maintaining order to Iraqi military units.
Establishing a theme likely to be repeated during coming hearings, Democratic senators pressed the nation's senior legislative analyst for indications that security gains could last. But David M. Walker, head of the Government Accountability Office, said it remained unclear whether Iraq's military and police could maintain the improvements brought about since an additional 28,500 U.S. troops were sent to Iraq this year.
Bush and U.S. commanders repeatedly have pointed to declines in sectarian killings and attacks on security forces in underscoring the need to continue stepped-up U.S. efforts. But Democrats sought to highlight the country's continuing instability.
"Do you think that the Iraqi security forces will be able to hold neighborhoods cleared by American forces?" Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, asked Walker. "Is there any reason to think that any gains that have been made during the recent surge will actually hold ... ?"
Replied Walker: "I think there's serious question as to whether or not they on their own will be able to hold these neighborhoods for an extended period of time."
The new environment "is an improvement, but it's separate and distinct as to whether it's sustainable," Walker, the GAO's comptroller general, told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in rolling out a generally bleak report on the U.S. mission
With Army Gen. David H. Petraeus expected to deliver a more upbeat progress report to Congress on Monday, war critics are trying to use a series of hearings this week to frame the issue. Reviewing the GAO report, they pointed out that government auditors disputed the administration's contention that the troop "surge" has improved security overall and pointed out that progress toward political reconciliation has been scant.
The GAO report found that of 18 designated "benchmarks" set out for Iraqi leaders last year, the country has met three, partially met four more, and failed to meet 11.
Walker said that data was contradictory on whether sectarian violence in Iraq has declined.
Some data examined by auditors "show increases, some show decreases, and some show inconsistent patterns," he said.
And he noted that the average number of attacks was the same in July as it was in February, when planning for the U.S. troop surge was beginning.
Walker said only two of nine benchmarks dealing with security have been met: The government has provided planned security posts in Baghdad, and it has organized committees to carry out the Baghdad security plan.
But he said it had failed on five others. The government had not, for example, eliminated militia control of local security, ended political meddling in security operations or increased the number of army units capable of operating without U.S. support.
Walker denied under questioning by senators that he had changed any of the report's conclusions because of administration pressure. But, he said, after the Pentagon provided additional data, he had decided to change two benchmark ratings to "partially met" - on the requirements to provide three capable Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad security operations, and to shut down all "safe havens" where enemy fighters could find protection.
Yesterday's hearing was the first of a series of coming sessions as Democratic lawmakers discussed how to resume their legislative campaign to force President Bush to begin a troop withdrawal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, again challenged his Republican colleagues to join the effort.
But neither Reid nor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco Democrat has outlined what the next step might be.
Democrats acknowledge they cannot count on enough Republican votes to send the president a firm timeline for pulling out troops. But any compromise that might attract GOP support might outrage a Democratic anti-war base that has become increasingly frustrated by Congress' inability to successfully challenge the White House over the war.
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.