The Iraqis are failing their benchmarks and there's nothing the US can do.
Iraqi politicians have made little headway in months of backroom wrangling on the so-called benchmarks for continued U.S. support, and observers say it is unlikely they will ever agree on some of the most difficult problems.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has promised to ensure passage of two measures that the Bush administration considers critical to stabilizing Iraq: a deal on sharing the country's oil wealth and relaxation of rules barring members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from the government and military. Yet neither step has made it to the floor of parliament.
Other measures also have languished, including discussion of a plan to disband militias, partial amnesty for insurgents, scheduling of local elections and action on constitutional amendments.
Despite the military emphasis from the US side, these benchmarks are the entire point of "the surge." The entire "surge" strategy is predicated on the "breathing space" concept, that the US would commit forces with the intent of establishing a temporary "peace" during which the Iraqi government could resolve its political problems.
But that's not happening.
More significantly to me, it appears that the Bush administration has almost no leverage left to force the Iraqis to undertake these political reconciliations.
From the Iraqi Shia/goverment side, ask yourself this, if I don't do these things, what are the Americans going to do?
Is the Bush administration going to withdraw from Iraq? No, for domestic reasons, the Bush administration will not withdraw.
Is the Bush administration likely to pull troops back into bases? No, not likely, because of all the political capital spent on selling the forward operating bases in "the surge." Even if the US does pull back, the Shia militias simply return to the streets where they win the civil war.
Will the Bush administration unilaterally crack down on Shia militias? No, because they don't have the manpower to open a Shia front and because it would put them in direct opposition with the Iraqi government.
Would the Bush administration attempt to back a coup or replace the government through political means? No, not likely, because of the huge downside risk of either no government or a Shia strongman emerging in opposition.
So, what's the risk to the Iraqi government? What's the Shia incentive to meet these benchmarks which would only dilute their power? If the civil war breaks into full open combat they would win in a rout.
In fact, as the US military actions in Iraq right now are focused primarily on the Sunnis, the Shia majority have every incentive to string along the current US operation as long as possible as it is degrading their Sunni foes.
In the current situation, the US military is doing the Shia's fighting for them.
Why would they move forward on benchmarks and upset that?
Later: (NYTimes) Sistani puts the brakes on the new de-Baathification law that Bush was hailing as an accomplishment just a week ago.