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Bush emphasizes progress in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Thursday that the yearlong increased U.S. troop deployment in Iraq had allowed the country to “restart political and economic life” and take on a greater role in its own reconstruction while building a modern democracy on “the rubble of three decades of tyranny.”

But he made clear his readiness to delay the withdrawal of U.S. forces, saying that as he considers his next steps, he will remember that “the progress in Iraq is real; it’s substantive -- but it is reversible.”

And in an apparent broadside at political critics who he said had refused to acknowledge the achievements he sees, the president said that “now that political progress is picking up, they’re looking for a new reason” to call for retreat.

Accusing some members of Congress of “hectoring” Iraqi leaders, he said: “They claim that our strategic interest is elsewhere, and that if we would just get out of Iraq, we could focus on the battles that really matter. . . .

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“If America’s strategic interests are not in Iraq . . . then where are they?” he asked.

The speech was Bush’s third of three over the last three weeks intended to present a broad look at U.S. policy in Iraq, the course of the war and the conditions on the ground five years after the U.S. invaded to overthrow the government of Saddam Hussein.

He spoke to about 1,000 people, many of them Air Force personnel, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, on the outskirts of Dayton. He stood between an F-86 of Korean War vintage and a current fighter jet, the F-22, with a Predator drone displayed from the ceiling of the museum hangar and a B-52 a menacing presence to the side.

Critics challenged his assessment, contending that it was overly rosy and failed to present a course that would lead to withdrawal.

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Steven A. Cook, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a telephone interview that although the examples of progress Bush cited were accurate, the new Iraqi laws the president cited either “fall short or there are loopholes.”

And, citing new fighting across the country as an “unraveling of the security situation,” he said it was “tough to talk about progress one day after 100 people were killed in the worst violence in months.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in a written statement that Bush had “failed to give the American people a clear indication” that a plan for success was any closer now than in the last five years.

“The president asserts that real progress has been made in Iraq, but if that were truly the case, then our troops would be coming home soon,” he said.

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In his 42-minute speech, Bush said any Iraqi failure to make quick political progress was not an example of “foot-dragging” -- a reference, an aide said, to criticism by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) -- but rather a reflection of the “revolutionary” nature of the challenge.

“This progress isn’t glamorous, but it is important,” Bush said.

He presented security issues, the economy and political conditions as woven together, and said he would take all of them into consideration when the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, came to Washington to report to Congress the week after next on the U.S. course in coming months.

Bush cited the Iraqi security forces’ response to new violence in Basra, a largely Shiite city in southeastern Iraq near the border with Iran, as evidence that the U.S.-supported government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki was willing to take on insurgents who had “received arms and training and funding from Iran.”

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He also presented several examples of what he said were political conditions that had “changed markedly.”

Among them: tribal sheiks taking part in a political revival; passage of a pension law allowing tens of thousands of Sunnis to collect retirement benefits; approval of a law allowing mid-level members of the Baath Party to take part in civil society, from which they had been barred in the aftermath of Hussein’s removal; and a movement toward provincial elections this year.

Suggesting at times a favorable comparison of Iraqi politics with American political behavior, Bush said that as in the United States, “sometimes it requires grass-roots politics to get the folks in central government to respond.”

“By any reasonable measure, the legislative achievements in Baghdad over the past four months have been remarkable,” he said.

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On the economic front, the president said that oil production had increased in fields north of Baghdad despite neglect of the oil infrastructure during the Hussein years.

He said Iraq was outspending the United States on Iraqi reconstruction by a ratio of 11 to 1, and that he expected the country to soon cover 100% of its reconstruction expenses. He also said that electricity production was above prewar levels, although insufficient to meet growing demands.

But, he said, “unemployment is still too high” and, acknowledging a complaint made recently by Petraeus, “corruption remains a challenge.”

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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