`Strategy is working' in Iraq

U.S. forces meeting their goals, Bush says

March 21, 2006|By JAMES GERSTENZANG | JAMES GERSTENZANG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CLEVELAND -- Three years after the United States launched the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, President Bush said yesterday that the overhauled American strategy of clearing insurgents from individual cities and then using Iraqi and U.S. forces to rebuild was succeeding.

Bush pointed to the city of Tal Afar, which U.S. forces abandoned in autumn 2004 after successfully battling insurgents only to see the fighters return in two months. But with renewed military effort, followed by rebuilding the civic structures and the holding of elections, the insurgents have become "marginalized," Bush said.

"The strategy is working," he said.

The speech was the second in a series of at least three that the president is delivering to mark the anniversary of the start of the war.

Each is intended to draw attention to one aspect of the conflict that, according to the administration, demonstrates that the United States is meeting its goals there - daily reports of chaos and death notwithstanding.

Facing polls that increasingly indicate the American people are turning away from their earlier support for the invasion and war, Bush acknowledged that the images of bombings, beheadings and other attacks on Iraqi civilians were horrific.

"Nobody likes beheadings," the president said.

He said it was "not easy to capture in a short clip on the evening news" the signs of progress. They are not as visually dramatic, he said, as a bombing in a marketplace.

The speeches Bush is delivering on the war in Iraq reflect a two-fold campaign: To lower expectations while holding out prospects for a successful outcome.

Unless pressed by a questioner, Bush no longer is making any mention of one of the original reasons for the invasion: the suspicion that Hussein was developing unconventional weapons. No evidence of that has been found.

Rather, Bush has focused on the effort to establish democracy in a part of the world where it is rare and on placing Iraq as at the center of his effort to secure the United States from terrorist attacks.

He has also avoided the more optimistic language that Vice President Dick Cheney has used. Ten months ago, Cheney said the insurgency was in its "last throes" and three years ago, as the invasion began, he predicted U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators.

Cheney insisted over the weekend that the statements were accurate at the time. But White House aides have concluded that Bush would lose credibility with such a rosy scenario.

Last Monday, Bush acknowledged that the violence continued to tear the country apart. He said U.S.-trained Iraqi forces were increasingly taking a leading role in securing the nation and would be responsible for more than half the country by the end of the year. But Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat and a critic of Bush's Iraq policy, pointed out Sunday that this includes vast stretches of uninhabited desert.

"The fighting has been tough," Bush told the Cleveland audience. "The enemy that we face has proved to be brutal and relentless. ... There will be more days of sacrifice and tough fighting before the victory is achieved."

But, the president said, with the new control exercised over Tall Afar and other towns and cities, "most of the country has remained relatively peaceful."

The president's audience, gathered at midday at a downtown hotel, was the City Club of Cleveland, a nonpartisan organization founded in 1912 that says it is the oldest "continuous free-speech forum" in the United States. Club members responded with only occasional displays of enthusiasm, interrupting his speech with applause for the first time nearly 28 minutes after he began speaking, when he said "the decision to remove Saddam Hussein was the right decision."

Outside the hotel, about 150 people protested Bush's war policies, banging drums, holding peace signs and chanting for him to leave. Meanwhile, protests were also held in Washington, San Francisco and Baltimore.

The president spoke for 90 minutes, spending nearly an hour of his time answering questions from the audience. For a president whose public appearances are usually carefully choreographed, the questions were unusually penetrating and critical.

The first question was about "prophetic Christians" who see the war in Iraq as an early sign of the apocalypse. Bush laughed it off: "First I'd heard of that."

To a question about the false premises for going to war - that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, was buying materials for nuclear weapons and was becoming a haven for terrorists - Bush said, "I asked the very same question: Where did we go wrong on intelligence?"

A high school student, asserting that the war was costing $19,600 per household, wondered whether that money could be put to better use as college tuition aid. "We can do more than one thing at a time," Bush replied.

James Gerstenzang writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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