By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 15, 2006
President Bush said yesterday that the United States is making steady progress in Iraq toward its goal of standing up a government that can sustain and protect the country, but he emphasized that the ultimate success of the U.S.-led venture lies in the hands of Iraqis.
In a Rose Garden news conference just over six hours after his surprise whirlwind visit to Baghdad, Bush said that "I sense something different happening in Iraq" and predicted that "progress will be steady" toward achieving the U.S. mission there.
Bush's measured optimism is at odds with many crucial indicators in Iraq, including oil and electricity production, which are at no better than prewar levels, and the pace of sectarian violence. It also stands in stark contrast to the opinions of many Iraqi citizens, who have expressed growing pessimism about the course of events in their country as well as a growing antipathy toward the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces.
Still, Bush struck an upbeat tone as he pointed to the progress he sees, while emphasizing that Iraqis hold the key to their own future. "Success in Iraq depends upon the Iraqis," Bush said. "If the Iraqis don't have the will to succeed, they're not going to succeed. We can have all the will we want, I can have all the confidence in the ability for us to bring people to justice, but if they choose not to take the -- make the hard decisions and to implement a plan, they're not going to make it."
Bush's remarks followed a recent flurry of good news for his beleaguered presidency and the U.S.-led effort in Iraq. In the past week, U.S. forces killed the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Also, the country recently completed the contentious, months-long effort to form a government that officials hope will balance the interests of the nation's many ethnic and religious factions.
The recent developments, capped by Bush's meeting Tuesday in Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone with new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have created a sense of momentum that the Bush administration is trying to capture.
Bush said he plans to dispatch Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt to help Iraq develop a compact that would commit the nation to a series of political, economic and security goals in exchange for more international aid. Bush also promised to redouble efforts to help Iraq collect the balance of the $13 billion pledged by international community, only $3 billion of which has been paid.
Referring to Iraq's reconciliation process, Bush said that membership in Saddam Hussein's Baath Party should not disqualify a person from being part of the Iraqi government. In the immediate aftermath of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, Baath Party members were purged from public life, which many analysts now call a mistake that fueled the Iraqi insurgency.
"Baath Party membership in order to secure a job or to be able to get an advanced degree should be a part -- shouldn't be held against a person," Bush said. "And I think they're willing to balance the difference between terror and -- 'expediency' isn't the right word, but terror and membership of a party to advance one's life."
Asked whether the tide is turning in Iraq, Bush replied cautiously. "I hope there's not an expectation from people that, all of a sudden, there's going to be zero violence -- in other words, it's just not going to be the case," he said. "On the other hand, I do think we'll be able to measure progress. You can measure progress in capacity of Iraqi units. You can measure progress in megawatts of electricity delivered. You can measure progress in terms of oil sold on the market on behalf of the Iraqi people."
The Iraqi government will have to succeed where the U.S.-led coalition has not if those measures are to improve. Crude oil production remains below prewar levels in Iraq, according to State Department figures, a situation that has been largely offset by higher prices. Despite huge investments, electricity is blacked out more than half the day in most of the country, and in Baghdad, electricity is operational an average of eight hours daily, less than half of prewar levels, the State Department said.
"We are treading water as we gradually try to give the Iraqis the ability to fight the war on their own and hopefully do better than we have been doing," said Michael E. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been tracking a broad spectrum of indicators to measure progress in Iraq.
The death of Zarqawi is a major boon for efforts to unravel his network, and seizing opportunities created by his demise is a question figuring prominently in Pentagon reevaluations of U.S. strategy in Iraq, according to defense officials.
Still looming large, however, are the long-standing problems of the homegrown Iraqi insurgency, the threat of sectarian violence and the reliability of Iraqi security forces -- all of which are likely to be more important in driving U.S. military strategy in Iraq and the eventual drawdown of the 130,000 U.S. troops.
Sectarian attacks rose dramatically after the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra in February, which pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Since February, an average of nearly 1,100 Iraqi civilians and 175 Iraqi and police and military and police members have been killed each month, according to the Iraqi government and Iraq Body Count, an independent group. The Pentagon has reported that at least 250 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since February, and the overall U.S. death toll is approaching 2,500.
Another major concern is that some of the fast-growing Iraqi security forces -- particularly police -- may be perpetrating sectarian violence, officials said.
"How much responsibility can you give to Iraqi security forces when they are susceptible to sectarian agendas?" a defense official said. "Our plan has been to build up the Iraqi security forces to handle it themselves, and it becomes paradoxical and counterproductive if they pursue sectarian agendas," he said.
These factors apparently have left many Iraqis discouraged, and hostile to U.S. forces. A March poll by the International Republican Institute found that only 30 percent of Iraqis felt their country was "headed in the right direction." In March 2004, 51 percent of Iraqis agreed with that assertion. Meanwhile, 76 percent of Iraqis called security conditions in the country "poor." In addition, a January survey by World Public Opinion found that 47 percent of Iraqis approved of attacks on U.S.-led forces.
In his remarks, Bush said he was confident that the elected government in Iraq was up to the task before it. He added that U.S. troops will remain by the government's side as long as is necessary to achieve the mission, despite growing calls for him to set a date certain to withdraw troops.
"One message that I will continue to send to the enemy is, don't count on us leaving before the [mission] is complete," Bush said. "Don't bet on it; don't bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it's not going to happen."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.