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Incredibly Optimistic

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By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, March 21, 2006; 10:39 AM

"I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken," President Bush said yesterday in Cleveland. "Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens, and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't."

Bush tried to explain. But in the end, what he provided was yet another example of what others see -- and he doesn't.

That would be reality.

The best Bush could do was tell the story of Tall Afar, a city in northern Iraq. "The example of Tall Afar gives me confidence in our strategy," he said. Tall Afar, he said, was once "a key base of operations for al Qaeda and is today a free city that gives reason for hope for a free Iraq."

The Washington Post provided some reality checks by a reporter there.

Peter Baker, working with "a Washington Post employee in Iraq," writes this morning: "Reports from the streets of Tall Afar, half a world away, offer a more complex story. U.S. forces last fall did drive out radicals who had brutalized the mid-size city near the Syrian border. But lately, residents say, the city has taken another dark turn. 'The armed men are fewer,' Nassir Sebti, 42, an air-conditioning mechanic, told a Washington Post interviewer Monday, 'but the assassinations between Sunni and Shiites have increased.' "

As Baker writes, even Bush's success stories "seem to come with asterisks. The administration hailed the election of a new democratic parliament last year, but the new body has so far proved incapable of forming a government for more than three months. U.S. forces have trained more Iraqi security troops, but the only unit judged capable of acting fully independently of U.S. assistance no longer can.

"The cycle has taken a new spin with the latest evolution of Iraq from violent insurgency against foreign occupiers to sectarian strife bordering on civil war. Since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra last month, hundreds of Iraqis have been killed in reprisals in a bloody spate of violence that has eclipsed most periods during the three years since the U.S.-led invasion.

"All this has taken its toll on Bush's credibility, Republican strategists say, making it hard for him to make people see what he sees in Iraq."

Indeed.

As Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Three years of upbeat White House assessments about Iraq that turned out to be premature, incomplete or plain wrong are complicating President Bush's efforts to restore public faith in the military operation and his presidency, according to pollsters and Republican lawmakers and strategists.

"The last two weeks have provided a snapshot of White House optimism that skeptics contend is at odds with the facts on the ground in Iraq.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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