Bush to address issues on Iraq

Speech in Annapolis comes as five more Westerners abducted


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Four kidnapped Western aid workers and a blindfolded German archaeologist appeared yesterday on videotapes on Al-Jazeera and on German television, signaling resumed abductions of Westerners by insurgents after a lull of many months.

The new kidnappings come as the Bush administration prepares to launch a public relations counteroffensive against critics of the Iraq war, hoping to stem fast-eroding public support for the conflict and restore confidence in the president's ability to bring it to a successful conclusion.

In a high-profile address at the U.S. Naval Academy this morning, President Bush will speak in detail about the new strength of Iraqi military forces, even naming individual Iraqis who have contributed to the fighting, according to a White House official who declined to be identified. Bush will focus on "the ability of Iraqi forces to defend themselves and their country," the primary prerequisite for reducing the number of U.S. forces, the official said.

On the Al-Jazeera videotape, a previously unknown group called the Swords of Righteousness Brigade said it was holding the four aid workers, calling them "spies" who are working undercover for coalition forces in the guise of being Christian peace activists.

The anti-war group Christian Peacemaker Teams confirmed that four of its workers had been abducted. The Chicago-based group identified them as American Tom Fox, 54, of Clearbrook, Va.; Briton Norman Kember, 74; and Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32. They were reportedly kidnapped Saturday in the western Baghdad neighborhood of Abu Ghraib, and the videotape bore Sunday's date. Al-Jazeera aired brief clips of the video, in which a camera pans across the men sitting cross-legged with their hands behind their backs against a wall and then shows a blurry selection of what appeared to be credit cards and other identity documents.

"We are angry because what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. government due to the illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people," the anti-war group said in a statement.

In Chicago, the group's training coordinator, Kryss Chupp, said that the families of the kidnapped men had been notified and that Chicago-area churches have been asked to pray for them.

"We're very concerned," Chupp said. "We're praying a lot."

Two were members of the Iraq-based team, and two were members of a visiting delegation, she said.

German authorities identified the abducted German as Susanne Osthoff, an archaeologist and aid worker who has been missing since Friday. Osthoff, who was shown kneeling and blindfolded with her Iraqi driver in the company of three masked, armed men, is believed to be the first German hostage taken.

Hostage videotapes were commonplace last year, when a rash of abductions of foreigners living and working in Iraq thinned out the expatriate community and prompted foreigners who remained to adopt stringent security precautions. More than 200 foreigners have been kidnapped in Iraq since the 2003 invasion, and more than 50 have been executed, some of them in videotaped beheadings.

One reason for the decline in the number of kidnappings of Westerners this year is the sharply reduced presence of foreigners outside the heavily fortified Green Zone, where the U.S. Embassy and many of the contractors working on reconstruction are based.

Bush's Annapolis speech, with its emphasis on the improved fighting capabilities of Iraqi troops, is viewed by analysts as an attempt to offer evidence that the administration has a viable plan for Iraq in the face of criticism from Republicans, as well as Democrats, that the war has been mishandled.

But the experts also see the speech as a signal that the White House has concluded that it must take a calculated risk -- that the highly suspect Iraqi military can now become the main protective force for the nascent federal government in Baghdad. That assessment is widely disputed by military specialists both inside and outside the administration.

Only two months ago, Gen. John P. Abizaid, the senior U.S. commander in the Middle East, told a Senate hearing that only one of the 100 Iraqi military battalions formed over the previous two years was fully trained, equipped and capable of operating independently.

The timing of the administration's move, analysts believe, is based in part on the need to counter domestic political pressure and shore up Bush's sagging poll numbers. But they say it is also motivated by the need to head off two potentially greater risks: a loss of public and congressional backing so precipitous that it might compel a politically devastating hasty pullout and the need to prevent the serious damage to America's all-volunteer military that could occur with an open-ended commitment in Iraq.

While Bush's speech constitutes the centerpiece of the White House move, the administration is responding on other fronts as well.

A few hours before the speech, in time for the morning television news shows, the White House is scheduled to release a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which outlines how the administration plans to defeat the insurgency that has gripped large swaths of the country, claimed more than 2,000 American lives and stunted the Iraqi economy.

Yesterday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld weighed in with his own praise for Iraq's military forces.

"The people who have been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong," he told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. "They've been wrong from the beginning. They're doing a darn good job, and they're doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month."

Liz Sly and Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah write for the Chicago Tribune. The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

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