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Bush Seeks to Counter Critics

In a Naval Academy speech today, he is to detail what his administration sees as recent progress in Iraq.

November 30, 2005|Tyler Marshall and Mark Mazzetti | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration will launch a public relations counteroffensive against critics of the Iraq war today, hoping to stem fast-eroding public support and restore confidence in the president's ability to bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.

In a high-profile address at the U.S. Naval Academy, President Bush will speak in detail about what the administration says is the new strength of Iraqi military forces, even naming individual Iraqis who have contributed to the war effort, a White House official said. Bush will focus on "the ability of Iraqi forces to defend themselves and their country," the primary prerequisite for reducing the number of U.S. troops, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bush's speech, with its emphasis on the fighting capabilities of Iraqi troops, is viewed by analysts as an attempt to offer evidence that the administration has a viable plan for Iraq in the face of criticism from Republicans and Democrats alike that the war has been mishandled.

But the experts also see the speech as a signal that the White House has concluded it must take a calculated risk that the Iraqi military can become the main protective force for the nascent government in Baghdad. That assessment is widely disputed by military specialists inside and outside the Bush administration.

Two months ago, Army Gen. George W. Casey, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, told a Senate hearing that only one of the 100 Iraqi military battalions formed over the previous two years was fully trained and equipped and capable of operating independently.

The timing of the administration's move, analysts believe, is based in part on the need to counter domestic political pressure and shore up Bush's sagging poll numbers. But they say it is also motivated by the need to head off two potentially greater risks: a precipitous loss of public and congressional backing that might compel a hasty, politically devastating pullout, and the need to prevent the damage to America's all-volunteer military that could occur with an open-ended commitment in Iraq.

Although Bush's speech constitutes the centerpiece of the White House move, the administration is also responding on other fronts.

A few hours before the speech, the White House is scheduled to release a "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" that outlines how the administration plans to defeat the insurgency that has gripped large swaths of the country, claimed the lives of many of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops who have died during the conflict and stunted the Iraqi economy.

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld weighed in with his own praise for Iraq's military forces.

"The people who have been denigrating the Iraqi security forces are flat wrong," he told a Pentagon news conference. "They've been wrong from the beginning. They're doing a darn good job and they're doing an increasingly better job every day, every week, every month."

Rumsfeld's remarks followed comments last week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who told Fox News that Iraqi forces would "fairly soon" be capable of defending their country. She repeated that assessment in Tuesday's USA Today.

The administration's media offensive on Iraq comes after the White House was surprised nearly two weeks ago by a call from Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Marine Corps veteran who had been a leading supporter of the war, for an immediate pullout.

For Bush and his presidency, the stakes could hardly be higher. A U.S. failure in Iraq would not only bring turmoil to a crucial part of the world. It would also constitute a setback in the administration's fight against militant Islam and probably undermine the president's drive to spread democracy throughout the Middle East.

Others are far from certain that Iraqi forces are ready to shoulder more responsibility. Inside the Pentagon, some experts argue that early failures of the training mission mean that Iraqi troops won't be able to assume control in most of the country until at least 2007.

"We've only been serious about this for a year and a half," said one Defense Department official who has made repeated trips to Iraq to study the training mission.

"It's going to be at least another year and a half before you will start to see some good results."

This official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that on his last trip to Iraq, he spoke to several dozen U.S. battalion commanders about the readiness of the Iraqi units assigned to them. Almost all of them estimated that it would be one or two more years before the Iraqi troops would be capable of taking over, the official said.

During especially difficult combat operations last year in and around the insurgent stronghold of Fallouja, west of Baghdad, many Iraqi units simply melted away once the fighting began.

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