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Bush sees reason to be encouraged by local-level progress

Times Staff Writer

President Bush sought to reassure the nation Saturday that he saw “signs of progress” in Iraq, especially at the local level, despite a week that saw the deadliest suicide bombings since the American-led invasion in 2003.

In his weekly radio address, Bush argued that “Americans can be encouraged” by evidence of reconciliation in several provinces that suffered intense sectarian violence or served as hotbeds of the insurgency.

“The rule of law is being restored,” he said.

“Virtually every city and town” in Al Anbar province in western Iraq now has a mayor and functioning municipal council, Bush said. He cited similar political advances in parts of Muthanna, Diyala and Nineveh provinces. Iraq has 18 provinces.

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Bush conceded that the central Iraqi government had failed to produce similar political progress on a national level despite the U.S. troop increase and a six-month security crackdown. But he argued that reconciliation at the local level would “help create the conditions for reconciliation in Baghdad as well.”

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government in Baghdad faces mounting criticism in Washington for incompetence, sloth and sectarianism. Eleven cabinet ministers have boycotted the struggling government in recent weeks and six other slots remain empty, and the parliament insisted on taking August off.

Bush’s optimistic comments, which he taped on vacation at his Texas ranch, help prepare for a crucial Sept. 15 White House report to Congress on progress in Iraq. It will rely on the assessments of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and senior military leaders, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, and Navy Adm. William J. Fallon, the U.S. commander in the Middle East.

They have not yet reported or made recommendations to the White House, however, and Bush “has made no decisions yet on the way ahead,” Gordon Johndroe, a deputy White House spokesman, told reporters in Crawford. “We’ll just have to see.”

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Johndroe denied published reports that the White House planned to bar Crocker and Petraeus from appearing in public to discuss their conclusions and advice. Both, Johndroe said, will testify in open session to relevant congressional committees.

In his radio address, Bush said that U.S. and Iraqi forces had “struck powerful blows against Al Qaeda terrorists and violent extremists” in Al Anbar and other long-restive provinces.

(Experts say the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq is a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist organization that uses a corps of foreign fighters to launch suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks. The group has claimed a loose affiliation to Osama bin Laden’s network, but the precise links are unknown.)

In a new offensive called Phantom Strike, Bush said, “we are carrying out targeted operations against terrorists and extremists fleeing Baghdad and other key cities to prevent them from returning or setting up new bases of operation.”

He said “our hearts go out to the families” of the hundreds of villagers, mostly members of the Yazidi religious sect, who were killed Tuesday in four coordinated bombings in northern Iraq, near the Syrian border. The area lies north of the latest American offensive, but Bush vowed that “our troops are going to go after the murderers behind this horrific attack.”

Bush trumpeted the work of the American-led provincial reconstruction teams in promoting political and economic development in each province. Twenty-five teams, comprising more than 450 people, are now active, according to a fact sheet issued by the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

“They bring together military, civilian and diplomatic personnel to help Iraqi communities rebuild infrastructure, create jobs, and encourage reconciliation from the ground up,” Bush said.

But a report released this month by the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, wrote that the teams had not achieved notable results.

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After visiting Iraq, the center’s Anthony H. Cordesman wrote that the teams “are badly undermanned and largely still ineffective, even in the provinces where they can actually operate and move with some degree of freedom.”

bob.drogin@latimes.com


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