A Case for Progress Amid Some Omissions

By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, June 29, 2005

In his speech last night, President Bush ignored some uncomfortable facts about the U.S. enterprise in Iraq and overstated the extent of overseas support. But he correctly identified the gains made by the nascent Iraqi government in the past year in the face of a fierce insurgency.

The president portrayed the war in Iraq as a central front in the anti-terrorism effort, a sort of quarantine for terrorist groups that might otherwise attack the United States. But the original rationale for the invasion of Iraq was ignored last night: a conviction by the Bush administration that Saddam Hussein's government possessed chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, the U.N. resolution that the Bush administration used as a rationale for the war dealt entirely with Iraq's failure to give up those weapons -- none of which were found after the war. Bush, announcing the invasion on March 19, 2003, said the military operations were "to disarm Iraq, to free its people and to defend the world from grave danger."

Two and a half months later, when he declared that major combat operations were over, the president said it was a victory in the war against terrorism because Hussein was "a source of terrorism funding" (referring to Iraq's role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and because "no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime."

Bush also described Hussein as "an ally of al Qaeda," a point he suggested again last night, but the Sept. 11 commission concluded there had been no collaboration between Hussein and the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden.

Now, many analysts inside and outside the government portray Iraq as a breeding ground for terrorist groups, in part because of mistakes made by the administration after it defeated Hussein and occupied Iraq. Bush emphasized the gains fighting terrorism, but the Pentagon commander for the Middle East, Gen. John P. Abizaid, said this month that more foreign fighters are now moving into Iraq than were six months ago.

In other sections of his speech, the president strained to make the level of international support higher and broader than in reality. He said the "international community has stepped forward with vital assistance," with 30 nations providing troops in Iraq. He also said the insurgents have failed to "force a mass withdrawal by our allies."

But the U.S.-led coalition, which once included about three dozen nations, has become a political liability for several participating countries. In the past year, more than a dozen countries have withdrawn or have announced plans to leave.

Spain, one of the three original co-sponsors of the invasion, withdrew more than a year ago. Portugal, Norway, Hungary, the Philippines, New Zealand, Thailand, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Tonga have also pulled out. Among three of the largest contributors, Ukraine and Poland have announced they will pull out by year's end, and Italy plans to begin reducing its presence this fall.

Bush also asserted that "some 40 countries and three international organizations have pledged about $34 billion in assistance for Iraqi reconstruction." But he did not say that $20 billion of that amount is from the United States, and much of it has been diverted to security or has not yet been delivered. Moreover, only about $2 billion of the remaining pledges -- made nearly two years ago -- has been delivered by the rest of the world.

Even if the full $34 billion is eventually delivered, it is well short of the $56 billion that the World Bank and the United Nations said in 2003 that Iraq would need over the next five years.

Yet, as Bush noted, the international community has become convinced that success in Iraq is important and that it is necessary to support, at least rhetorically, the transitional government.

Bush said Iraq's political transformation is sparking change across the Middle East. Yet Yasser Arafat's death was the turning point that brought new Palestinian leadership -- and new prospects for talks with Israel and U.S. intervention.

The suicide bombing that assassinated Lebanon's opposition leader provoked the "Cedar Revolution" and demands for Syria's withdrawal. And the process that led to Libya's surrender of its weapons of mass destruction was started before Bush came to office.

Indeed, because of bloodshed, rather than Iraq being viewed as a model, many in the region say they fear the kind of change that Iraq has experienced over the past two years.

On several points, Bush accurately portrayed the situation. Despite the slowness in forming Iraq's current government, the three-phase transition has met most of the deadlines. More than 60 percent of Iraqis defied the violence to vote in January's free elections.

Iraq has made significant gains in both the quantity and quality of its security forces over the past year, although together the 150,000-strong international coalition that ousted Hussein and the 160,000 Iraqi forces have not been able to handle the insurgency.

Indeed, as Bush said, Iraqi insurgents and foreign fighters have so far failed to achieve their strategic goals -- and hundreds have been killed or captured. Their activities are still largely in three of Iraq's 18 provinces.

Bush also noted that the insurgents have "failed to incite an Iraqi civil war." That is correct, thus far, but senior Iraqi officials warn that intensifying sectarianism makes a civil war increasingly possible.

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