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Remembering Those Benchmarks? By: Fred Barnes
The Weekly Standard | Monday, February 18, 2008

A year ago, when neither the war nor political reconciliation was A going well, the Bush administration reluctantly agreed to 18 benchmarks for judging progress in Iraq. And the Democratic Congress eagerly wrote the benchmarks into law, also requiring the administration to report back in July and September on whether the benchmarks were being met.

Despite the surge of additional American troops and a new counterinsurgency strategy, the reports found little progress on the political benchmarks requiring tangible steps toward reconciliation between Shia and Sunnis. Democrats insisted this meant the surge had failed.

They had a point, but not anymore. The surge, by quelling violence and providing security, was supposed to produce "breathing space" in which reconciliation could take place. Now it has, not because President Bush says so, but based on those same benchmarks that Democrats once claimed were measures of failure in Iraq.

Last week, the Iraqi parliament passed three laws that amounted to a political surge to achieve reconciliation. Taken together, the laws are likely to bring minority Sunnis fully into the political process they had earlier boycotted and to produce a new class of political leaders.

Just as important is what the laws reflect in Iraq today. "The whole motivating factor" behind the legislation was "reconciliation, not retribution," says American ambassador Ryan Crocker, who has never sugarcoated the impediments to progress in Iraq. This is "remarkably different" from six months ago, he said.

The Iraqi government had made progress on nine of the 18 benchmarks before last week. But these were the easier ones, like forming a constitutional review committee or establishing security stations in Baghdad with American and Iraqi soldiers. The new laws deal with the harder, more divisive issues.

The most controversial--and the toughest to enact--gives significant power to provincial councils and mandates new provincial elections by October 1. As a result, leaders of the so-called Sunni Awakening who have broken with al Qaeda and insurgents are all but certain to gain power. And Iraq will have a decentralized, federal system of government.

In assessing progress last fall, the administration conceded the Iraqis had "not made significant progress" on achieving the benchmark on provincial powers. Now they have.

Next in importance to reconciliation is an amnesty law under which thousands of jailed Sunnis who haven't been charged with a crime will be released. Months ago, the administration said "the prerequisites for a successful general amnesty are not present." But the surge changed that by reducing violence and creating the conditions for amnesty.

If they wish, Democrats can cite the failure of the Iraqi parliament to pass a "hydrocarbons" law to codify the sharing of oil revenues among the Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds. And that law is still needed, particularly to provide a framework for managing the oil sector of the Iraqi economy.

In effect, however, the Iraqis are now sharing oil revenues through the $48 billion budget they passed. Ten billion dollars is to be distributed to the provinces without any sectarian bias. By the way, the vast majority of the $48 billion came from oil production.

A few weeks ago, the Iraqi government dealt with still another benchmark involving reconciliation. It called for "enacting and implementing a de-Baathification reform" to allow thousands of bureaucrats and officials in Saddam Hussein's regime to regain their jobs. Last fall, the Iraqis had "not made satisfactory progress" on this reform.

The new law has been criticized as too complicated. It may be as likely to force former Baathists--Sunnis mostly--out of jobs as it is to provide them with job opportunities. Crocker said the law will have to be straightened out by the executive council of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the president (a Kurd), and two vice presidents (Shia and Sunni). "They're approaching it from a spirit of reconciliation," he said. We'll see.

When the second benchmarks report was released last September, Democrats jumped on it. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said the report "shows the president's flawed escalation policy is not working." According to Democratic senator Joe Biden of Delaware, "all it does is point out the failure." Democratic senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island said the Iraqi government "is not making progress ... with respect to these benchmarks."

Now, the facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and so has progress on the benchmarks. Will Democrats acknowledge this? Or will they continue to claim the surge has failed and demand rapid withdrawal of our troops? So far, Democrats have reacted with silence.

"Facts are stubborn," Hillary Clinton said last month, "and I know it's sometimes hard to keep track of facts. But facts matter." Indeed they do. But with Democrats, the warning of former Harvard dean Henry Rosovsky may apply. "Never underestimate the difficulty," he said, "of changing false beliefs by facts."

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.

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