Washington No matter who is elected president in November, his foreign policy team will have to deal with one of the most frustrating realities in Iraq: the slow pace with which the government in Baghdad operates.
Iraq's political and military success is considered vital to U.S. interests, whether troops stay or go. And while the Iraqi government has made measurable progress in recent months, the pace at which it's done so has been achingly slow.
The White House sees the progress in a particularly positive light, declaring in a new assessment to Congress that Iraq's efforts on 15 of 18 benchmarks are "satisfactory" - almost twice of what it determined to be the case a year ago. The May 2008 report card, obtained by the Associated Press, determines that only two of the benchmarks - enacting and implementing laws to disarm militias and distribute oil revenues - are unsatisfactory.
In the past 12 months, since the White House released its first formal assessment of Iraq's military and political progress, Baghdad politicians have reached several new agreements seen as critical to easing sectarian tensions.
They have passed, for example, legislation that grants amnesty for some prisoners and allows former members of Saddam Hussein's political party to recover lost jobs or pensions. They also determined that provincial elections would be held by Oct. 1.
But for every small step forward, Iraq has several more giant steps to take before victory can be declared on any one issue.
Amnesty requests are backlogged, and in question is whether the new law will speed the release of those in U.S. custody. It also remains unclear just how many former Baath members will be able to return to their jobs. And while Oct. 1 had been identified as an election day, Baghdad hasn't been able to agree on the rules, possibly delaying the event by several weeks.
Likewise, militias and sectarian interests among Iraq's leaders still play a central role in the conflict. And U.S. military officials say they are unsure violence levels will stay down as troop levels return to 142,000 after a major buildup last year.
In the May progress report, one benchmark was deemed to have brought mixed results. The Iraqi army has made satisfactory progress on the goal of fairly enforcing the law, while the nation's police force remains plagued by sectarianism, according to the administration assessment.
Overall, militia control has declined and Baghdad's security forces have "demonstrated its willingness and effectiveness to use these authorities to pursue extremists in all provinces, regardless of population or extremist demographics," as illustrated by recent operations, the White House concludes.