President Bush yesterday sought to rally U.S. troops behind his Iraq strategy -- and he and his aides left little to chance.
Before the president spoke via a video link, his event planners handpicked 10 soldiers from the Army's 42nd Infantry and one Iraqi soldier, told them what topics the president would ask about, and watched them briefly rehearse their presentations before going live.
The soldiers did not disappoint. Each one praised the president, the war and the progress in training Iraqi troops. Several spoke in a monotone voice, as if determined to remember and stay on script.
The Iraqi, Sgt. Maj. Akeel Shaker Nassir, who is in charge of the Iraqi army training facility in Tikrit, had only a few words for Bush, but they were gushing: "Thank very much for everything. I like you."
Nassir's comments came near the end of one of the stranger and most awkwardly staged publicity events of the Bush presidency. It started with Bush, in Washington standing at a lectern, talking to the soldiers via video on a large flat-screen. They sat shoulder to shoulder and stared dutifully at the camera.
The president's delivery was choppy, as he gazed frequently at his notes and seemed several times to be groping for the right words. Bush told the soldiers they are facing a "ruthless and coldblooded" enemy intent on "the killing of innocent people to get the American government to pull you out of there before the mission is accomplished."
Two days before Iraq votes on a new constitution that Bush considers essential to creating a democracy in the Middle East, he said the United States is making steady progress in defeating the insurgents and in training Iraqi troops to take over full control of the military operation.
"We got a strategy, and it's a clear strategy," Bush said. "On the one hand, we will hunt down these killers and terrorists and bring them to justice, and train the Iraqi forces to join us in that effort." The soldiers were in complete agreement.
The Defense Department yesterday provided Congress a markedly more sober assessment of the progress in Iraq. It touted advances in the development and involvement of Iraqi troops, but also noted a recent increase in the number of insurgent attacks and problems meeting targets for the production of electricity and oil. At the White House, spokesman Scott McClellan said the troops at Bush's event were told "what to expect."
Before they spoke, Allison Barber, a mid-level Pentagon official, helped coach the troops on who would be asked what by Bush. Afterward, according to Reuters, she told reporters that "we knew that the president was going to ask about security, coalition and training" but not the specific questions.
This not a new technique for Bush; his White House has perfected the public relations strategy of holding scripted events featuring the president's supporters. During the first part of the year, Bush traveled the country to discuss his Social Security plan, while aides stacked the audience with Republicans and tutored participants in these town hall events on what to say.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) was not impressed. "The American people and our brave troops deserve better than a photo-op for the president and a pep rally about Iraq," he said. "They deserve a plan. Unfortunately, today's event only served to highlight the fact that the president refuses to engage in a frank conversation about the realities on the ground."
Capt. Stephen N. Pratt tapped to respond to Bush's inquiry about the capability of Iraqi forces. "It was impressive to me," Pratt said, "to see the cooperation and the communication that took place among the Iraqi forces. Along with the coalition's backing them, we'll have a very successful and effective referendum vote."
Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo told Bush the partnership should allow Iraqis to take over a large number of operations within a month.
"Since we began our partnership, they have improved greatly, and they continue to develop and grow into sustainable forces," Lombardo said. "Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations."
Offering the Defense Department's own appraisal, Pentagon officials presented a 43-page unclassified report under a congressional requirement for quarterly updates on the situation in Iraq. Compared with the first report, in July, Pentagon officials broke down more specifically how well the Iraqi security forces are doing, with 200,000 troops trained and 88 Army battalions in the fight. They are still a long way from controlling the country's security, officials acknowledged.
After a day of White House damage control, Pentagon spokesman Lawrence T. Di Rita put out a statement last night apologizing for "any perception that [the soldiers] were told what to say" at the event. "It is not the case," he said. Di Rita said technological challenges prompted government officials to advise the soldiers what questions they would be asked "solely to help the troops feel at ease during an obviously unique experience." He said the soldiers decided who would answer.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.