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Bush presents upbeat update of Iraq war

Times Staff Writer

Seizing on the decline in civilian and U.S. military deaths in Iraq, President Bush on Friday delivered an upbeat assessment of the war’s progress, citing both the drop in violence and greater Iraqi control of restive provinces.

But he conceded that corruption remains a problem, unemployment is still high and economic improvements are spotty at best.

“Slowly but surely, the people of Iraq are reclaiming a normal society,” the president said to a cheering crowd of 1,300 soldiers who had just completed the Army’s nine-week basic combat training course.

The visit’s focus was the festive graduation on a parade ground, the young, just-trained privates and their drill sergeants marching in review before the president. But in a poignant reminder of the price of the war, it ended at the Chaplain Center and School, where Bush met privately with the families of nine soldiers and three Marines who died in Iraq.

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At the graduation ceremony, the president said that since the troop increase reached full strength in June, the number of roadside bombs had been cut by half. He said U.S. military deaths were at their lowest in 19 months and Iraqi forces were in charge of security in eight of Iraq’s 18 provinces.

He acknowledged that at the top of the Iraqi political hierarchy, reconciliation “hasn’t been what we hoped it’d been by now,” the parliament has not passed key legislation and “political factions still are failing to make necessary compromises.”

But he said “reconciliation is taking place at the local level.”

The president cited examples of Sunni and Shiite Muslim sheiks working together in Anbar and Karbala provinces and tribal groups cooperating in Diyala province, and said that “given time and space, the normal Iraqi will take the necessary steps to . . . fight for a free society.”

Though the White House sees increased security as the first step in the anticipated payoffs from the troop increase Bush announced in January, Bush did not specifically equate the improvements he cited with the 30,000 additional troops.

Over the years, Bush has cited optimistic figures and examples of reconciliation, only to see violence erupt -- most dramatically in Fallouja.

Gordon D. Johndroe, the White House National Security Council spokesman, said Bush decided to focus his speech on Iraq because he hadn’t given a lengthy address on the war in about a month and it was “time to give an update.”

The president’s positive report left open the question of whether the reduced violence signaled that the war had turned a corner -- something the administration was not ready to claim.

“The purpose of the strategy is to make the lull a trend,” Johndroe said, asserting that it suggested, at the moment, “steady forward movement on the security front.”

The president’s words are supported by reports from Baghdad and elsewhere in Iraq.

The civilian body count in October was less than half of what it was at its height, in January. And according to icasualties.org, the death toll of American troops, 39, was the lowest since March 2006, when 31 were killed.

The U.S. troop increase, which reached its height in June, brought the total deployment to 160,000 troops. Some Iraq experts think the recent decrease in violence stems less from the troop increase than from the successful efforts by sectarian militias to remove rival religious sects from specific neighborhoods, segregating warring Sunni and Shiite Muslims from each other.

While in South Carolina, Bush also attended a campaign fundraising luncheon for Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, who is seeking reelection. By dividing his time between an official event and a political program, Bush reduced the travel expense to be charged to the campaign.

Ft. Jackson, near Columbia, S.C., is the Army’s largest basic training center, preparing 50% of Army recruits each year. More than 3,900 active-duty soldiers are assigned here.

At Hilton Field, a vast parade ground where graduations are held nearly every Friday, the atmosphere on the cloudless, windy afternoon was a cross between a solemn military ceremony and a county fair: A country singer performed patriotic songs accompanied by a recorded band; a military band played; children slid down a pair of inflated slides; and doughnuts, hamburgers and hot dogs were sold.

Before his speech, the president visited with about 200 soldiers at the fort’s Fit-to-Win endurance site, where they learn battlefield skills by running, jumping, crawling and vaulting their way across an obstacle course.

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james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com


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