WASHINGTON – President Bush vowed for the first time Monday to turn over most of Iraq to newly trained Iraqi troops by the end of this year, setting a specific benchmark as he kicked off a fresh drive to reassure Americans alarmed by the recent burst of sectarian violence.
Bush, who until now has resisted concrete timelines as the Iraq war has dragged on longer than he expected, outlined the target during the first of a series of speeches intended to lay out his strategy for victory. While acknowledging grim developments on the ground, Bush declared “real progress” in standing up Iraqi forces capable of defending their nation.
“As more capable Iraqi police and soldiers come on line, they will assume responsibility for more territory with the goal of having the Iraqis control more territory than the coalition by the end of 2006,” he said in a speech to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “And as Iraqis take over more territory, this frees American and coalition forces to concentrate on training and on hunting down high-value targets like the terrorist (Abu Musab) Zarqawi and his associates.”
The president made no commitments about withdrawing U.S. troops but repeated his general formula that Americans could come home as Iraqis eventually take over the fight against insurgents. He also used the speech to urge Iraqis to form a unity government three months after parliamentary elections and he accused Iran of providing explosives to Shiite militias attacking U.S. forces in Iraq.
The beginning of a new campaign to rally Americans behind the war effort nearly three years after the U.S.-led invasion comes at a time of deepening public misgivings about the campaign in Iraq and Bush’s leadership of it. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll this month, 34 percent of Americans surveyed said they think the president has a plan for victory in Iraq, 6 percentage points fewer than in December and the lowest level recorded by that poll. By contrast, 65 percent said Bush has no Iraq plan.
How meaningful or achievable the president’s new goal is seems uncertain. In the speech, Bush said Iraqi units today have “primary responsibility” over 30,000 square miles of Iraqi territory, an increase of 20,000 square miles since the beginning of the year. As a country of nearly 169,000 square miles, Iraqi forces would need to control about 85,000 square miles to fulfill Bush’s target.
What constitutes control, however, depends on the definition, since no Iraqi unit is currently rated capable of operating without U.S. assistance. And vast swaths of Iraq have never been contested by insurgents, meaning they could ultimately be turned over to local forces without directly affecting the conflict.
Bush said 130 Iraqi battalions are participating in the battle with radical guerrillas, with 60 units taking the lead, an increase from 120 battalions and 40 in the lead when he last delivered major speeches on Iraq at the end of 2005. But Democrats pointed out that a Pentagon report last month showed that the number of Iraqi units rated “level 1,” or fully independent of U.S. help, has fallen from one to zero.
Democratic leaders hammered away at the president’s latest effort to win public support for the war. “Instead of launching yet another public relations campaign, President Bush should use his speeches this week to provide a strategy to bring our brave men and women home safely and soon,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Calif., said in a statement. Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, N.J., said: “It is time for President Bush to stop the spin and start telling the truth about the harsh realities we are confronting in Iraq.”
Others praised Bush for committing to a specific target, if not a comprehensive timeline. “This was a step in the right direction,” Rep. Dan Boren, Okla., a centrist Democrat invited to the speech, said in an interview afterward. “Benchmarks set clear, defined goals and if we see more and more Iraqis being trained and put on the ground, then that means we can bring more Americans home.”
In his speech at George Washington University, Bush focused on the threat of improvised explosive devices, called IEDs by troops, and said his administration has increased funding to fight them from $150 million in 2004 to $3.3 billion this year. In stark language, he also blamed Iran for helping the bomb makers. Just last week, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also accused Iran of dispatching elements of its Revolutionary Guard to conduct unspecified operations.
“Some of the most powerful IEDs we’re seeing in Iraq today include components that come from Iran,” Bush said. Such actions, along with Iran’s nuclear program, he said, “are increasingly isolating Iran, and America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.”
Following a deadly spasm of sectarian conflict last month sparked by the bombing of a Shiite shrine, the president presented a dour forecast of continuing mayhem. “I wish I could tell you that the violence is waning and that the road ahead will be smooth,” he said. “It will not. There will be more tough fighting and more days of struggle and we will see more images of chaos and carnage in the days and months to come.”
But Bush said he saw hope in the fact that the country has not fallen into civil war, as some had forecast. “The Iraqi people made their choice,” he said. “They looked into the abyss and did not like what they saw.”
Bush vowed not to retreat in the face of violence, reading a letter from the mother of Sgt. William S. Kinzer Jr., who was killed last year. “Don’t let my son have given his all for an unfinished job,” she wrote, according to Bush. “I make this promise to Debbie and all the families of the fallen heroes,” he said. “We will not let your loved ones’ dying be in vain. We will finish what we started in Iraq. We will complete the mission.