By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 28, 2008
DAYTON, Ohio, March 27 -- The images from Baghdad and Basra bristled with explosions, burning buildings, angry street protests, rocket smoke wafting from the Green Zone. The words from Dayton were "remarkable" and "victory" and "rebirth."
"Normalcy," President Bush said, "is returning back to Iraq."
The juxtaposition of image and sound crisply illustrated Bush's challenge in pleading for more patience from his own weary public for a war that has now surpassed five years and 4,000 American dead. Bush came here Thursday to make the case that Iraq has made impressive progress in political reconciliation in recent months even as his argument was overshadowed by the latest outbreak of violence.
Bush cast the battling in Basra not as a setback but as more fodder for optimism, a sign that Iraq's leaders were ready to challenge the militias that dominate the southern city with a tough security crackdown designed and led by the government's own forces. "The enemy will try to fill the TV screens with violence," the president said. "But the ultimate result will be this: Terrorists and extremists in Iraq will know they have no place in a free and democratic society."
Meanwhile, Bush advisers in Washington held a series of meetings to assess what appeared to be a rapidly deteriorating situation in southern Iraq as three rival Shiite militias battled for political power. A decisive victory for Iraqi security forces could bolster Bush's position heading into congressional hearings on the war next month, they said, but they expressed nervousness that the operation would upset a fragile cease-fire with radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that has been a major factor in falling violence in recent months.
The Basra operation and its ripple effects complicated Bush's political task at home at a sensitive moment. The president came here to deliver the third and final speech hailing recent successes in Iraq before Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker return to provide a report to Congress on April 8 and 9. Petraeus has recommended a pause in troop withdrawals after the extra combat brigades that Bush sent last year leave this summer, and the president has been laying the political groundwork for adopting that approach.
The White House plan did not envision rockets raining down and killing Americans in the same fortified complex that Vice President Cheney visited just last week.
Bush came to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio to talk about the political and economic progress he sees in Iraq, fruits in his view of the troop buildup. He noted that the Iraqi legislature has passed a national budget, a pension law, legislation setting provincial elections and a measure allowing mid-level members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party back into government.
"By any reasonable measure, the legislative achievements in Baghdad over the past four months have been remarkable," he said, acknowledging that more needs to be done, most prominently passage of a law governing Iraq's oil industry.
Bush pointed to the proliferation of soccer games, community organizations and a five-kilometer race along once-perilous streets in Anbar province as signs that "normalcy" is returning. He praised what he called bottom-up reconciliation among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds tired of conflict, part of what he called "the rebirth of Iraqi civil society."
While it has been slow, "it is not foot-dragging," Bush said, referring to recent comments by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "Some members of Congress decided the best way to encourage progress in Baghdad was to criticize and threaten Iraq's leaders while they're trying to work out their differences," Bush said, with warplanes flanking him and an unmanned Predator drone suspended from the ceiling and pointed right at him. "But hectoring was not what they needed. What they needed was security, and that is what the surge has provided."
Democrats were unconvinced. "Once again today, President Bush painted a rosy picture of the continuing war in Iraq that is divorced from the reality on the ground," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.). He added: "The reality is rockets continue to rain down on the fortified Green Zone . . . Basra has fallen into chaos, violence and bloodshed, and car and suicide bombings continue to kill scores of innocent Iraqis almost daily."
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) seconded that. "Rather than criticizing Congress, President Bush should be working with us to hold the Iraqi government accountable," he said. "The president's failure on this front is keeping our troops mired in an endless civil war."
Bush cast Democrats as defeatists so intent on getting out of Iraq that they are unwilling to accept good news. "No matter what shortcomings these critics diagnose, their prescription is always the same -- retreat," he said. Critics need to remember "the enormity of what the Iraqis are trying to do," he added. "They're striving to build a modern democracy on the rubble of three decades of tyranny in a region of the world that has been hostile to freedom."
Despite doubts within the Bush administration about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's move in Basra, Bush offered unstinting support. "Prime Minister Maliki's bold decision -- and it was a bold decision -- to go after the illegal groups in Basra shows his leadership," Bush said.
The strong support signaled the evolution of Bush's position and a decision to throw his weight fully behind Maliki. Just 16 months ago, Bush's national security adviser, Stephen J. Hadley, sent the president a memo expressing skepticism about Maliki's capacity or willingness to lead Iraq through its troubles, and last year the president made a point of pressing the premier to do more even as he offered encouragement. On Thursday, Bush was staunchly defending Maliki from U.S. pressure rather than applying any of his own.
Bush also tried to defuse criticism of his efforts to negotiate a long-term strategic agreement with Iraq before a U.N. mandate authorizing the U.S. military presence expires at the end of the year. "This partnership would not bind future presidents to specific troop levels," he said. "This partnership would not establish permanent bases in Iraq."
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has sponsored legislation intended to block such a pact, did not take him at his word. "We must stop the president as he attempts to sidestep Congress and the will of the American people," Clinton said. "I urge my colleagues to join me in opposing the president's attempt to cement his failed Iraq policy for years to come."