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Anbar Gives Bush Place to Cite War Progress

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Anbar Gives Bush Place to Cite War Progress

Iraq

Anbar Gives Bush Place to Cite War Progress

Anbar Gives Bush Place to Cite War Progress

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President Bush makes a surprise stop in Iraq, visiting Anbar province, site of some of the worst violence of the war. It's also an area where U.S. commanders have described progress in recent months. The president is using the trip to make the case that his troop buildout is working.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Supporters of President Bush are struggling to persuade Americans that the war in Iraq has changed. You can see a presidential visit today as an effort to get voters and lawmakers to look again. The president is in Iraq today, and he moved outside Baghdad this time, to the western part of the country.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been traveling with the president. And, Don, where are you now?

DON GONYEA: We're at the Al Asad airbase. It's the second-largest airbase in Iraq. It's in Anbar province. We're about halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border.

INSKEEP: And why go there?

GONYEA: This is an area where the White House feels the president can highlight a success story. Anbar province - a year ago, people were talking about Anbar being lost. It was an al-Qaida stronghold. It was definitely one of the bad news stories of the war. But there's been an influx in U.S. troops as part of the surge that's underway. But also prior to that, and what the White House likes to point to, is that al-Qaida-related attacks have been reduced drastically. It wasn't unusual to have a hundred a day; now it's in the single digits, at least according to the most recent statistics they have released.

And they say it's because of the surge, but they say the surge encouraged the local Sunni leaders in this case to recognize that it was worth supporting and working with the United States in the fight against al-Qaida. So that's what the president's going to be talking about, this place as a possible model for the rest of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Even if the story that they want to promote is that things are improving, I do have to ask: If you have the president of the United States traveling with the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Iraq, what is security like?

GONYEA: We are in the middle of this base, which has, we're told, an 18-mile perimeter, and the president is not leaving the base. Now I can tell you when we landed, we did not do that corkscrew-style landing in Air Force One, the 747 we flew in. We also flew in the middle of the afternoon. But we're also told that the Iraqi leaders that the president would be meeting with, Prime Minister Maliki and others and some of Sunni tribal leaders, did not know he was coming in advance. So they kept everything under wraps. But again, he's in the middle of a very large base that's in the middle of the desert. This is not a trip to an urban area at all.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. He's with President Bush in western Iraq making an unannounced visit today.

And, Don, I have to ask you about the timing of this. Of course, back here in Washington, people are waiting for a report from the commanding U.S. general in Iraq. There are Republicans who seem to be defecting from the cause. How much pressure is President Bush under right now to sustain his policy and sustain the war?

GONYEA: He's under a great deal of pressure, and that is absolutely what this trip is about. I mean, on the plane on the way over, National Security Advisor Steven Hadley was asked, is this just a publicity stunt? Is this just the president trying to seize the initiative? And they say, hey, the president's only doing what members of Congress have been doing over the past month - going to Iraq to see first hand. But clearly, it is an effort on the part of the president to change the dialogue a little bit, to highlight what they see as a good news story. And, you know, they're not going to win over the average American, but they are looking at those wavering Republicans.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea in western Anbar province. Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure.

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Bush Makes Unexpected Stop at Iraq Air Base

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President Bush chats with a Marine in front of a military vehicle. i

President Bush chats with a Marine. Monday's visit to Anbar province comes ahead of a crucial report to Congress on U.S. strategy in the war-torn nation. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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President Bush chats with a Marine in front of a military vehicle.

President Bush chats with a Marine. Monday's visit to Anbar province comes ahead of a crucial report to Congress on U.S. strategy in the war-torn nation.

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President Bush with Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. William Fallon. i

President Bush speaks with Gen. David Petraeus (to his left) at Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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President Bush with Gen. David Petraeus, Adm. William Fallon.

President Bush speaks with Gen. David Petraeus (to his left) at Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq.

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President Bush and his national security team made a first-hand assessment of the war in Iraq and prospects for political reconciliation Monday before a showdown with Congress over the U.S. troop buildup.

The president secretly flew 12 hours to this dusty air base in a remote part of Anbar province, bypassing Baghdad in a symbolic expression of impatience with political paralysis in the nation's capital. The gesture underscored the U.S. belief that the spark for progress may come at the local level.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates arrived ahead of Bush and conferred with senior U.S. officials, including Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, before a session with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, and other top Iraqi officials from Baghdad.

To a large degree, the setting was the message: Bringing al-Maliki, a Shiite, to the heart of mostly Sunni Anbar province was intended to show the administration's war critics that the beleaguered Iraqi leader is capable of reaching out to Sunnis, who ran the country for years under Saddam Hussein.

The temperature topped 110 degrees as Bush stepped off Air Force One. The president stopped at a small building where a Marine Cobra pilot briefed him about the positives and negatives of current troop rotations. He told the president that troops were not getting enough time at home and did not have enough time for training.

"Morale?" asked Bush. "How's morale?"

"Very high sir," the pilot, Capt. Lee Hemming, said.

Bush's six-hour stay was being confined to Al-Asad Air Base, an airfield once part of Saddam Hussein's military.

National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the trip was conceived about six weeks ago when top White House advisers began discussing Bush's role as Congress returns to Washington and debate over the war heats up. It was decided that progress in Anbar made it the perfect place to showcase the administration's strategy.

There has been a drop in violence in Anbar, where Sunni tribal leaders and former insurgents have teamed up with U.S. troops to hunt down al-Qaida and other extremists.

Anticipating criticism that Bush's trip was a media event to buttress support for his war strategy, the White House was ready to push back.

"There are some people who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity," White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino said. "We wholeheartedly disagree."

Hadley said Bush wanted to hear personally from commanders and from al-Maliki himself.

"There is no substitute for sitting down, looking him in the eye, and having a conversation with him," Hadley said. "The president felt this is something he had to do in order to put himself in a position to make some important decisions."

Next week, Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Crocker testify before Congress. Their assessment of the conflict, along with a progress report the White House must give lawmakers by Sept. 15, will determine the next chapter of the war.

Indications are that the president intends to stick with his current approach — at least into 2008 — despite pressure from the Democratic-led Congress and some prominent Republicans. Right now, the White House is working to keep Republican members of Congress in the president's fold to prevent Democrats from amassing the strength to slash war funds or mandate immediate troop withdrawals.

The United States cannot sustain the troop buildup indefinitely. And with Democrats calling for withdrawals and a rising U.S. death toll that has topped 3,700, the president is hardpressed to give al-Maliki's government much more time to find a political solution to the fighting.

Bush stopped in Iraq ahead of his visit to Australia for an economic summit with Asia-Pacific leaders. The trip was a closely held secret for obvious security reasons, although speculation about the trip arose late last month when first lady Laura Bush said she was staying home to tend to a pinched nerve in her neck.

The president, who also went to Iraq at Thanksgiving 2003 and in June 2006, was scheduled to leave for Australia on Monday, but Air Force One took off from Andrews Air Force Base Sunday evening instead.

He was joined by his top advisers, including National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. Joining Gates were Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Adm. William Fallon, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East. Fallon flew aboard Gates' Air Force plane from Washington.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said the session at al-Asad would be the last big gathering of the president's war advisers with Iraqi leaders before he makes a decision on a way forward in Iraq.

The White House arranged Bush's trip at a pivotal juncture in the Iraq debate. Some prominent GOP lawmakers have broken with Bush on his war strategy, but so far, most Republicans have stood with Bush. In exchange for their loyalty, they want to see substantial progress in Iraq soon.

Critics of the war argue that while the troop buildup may have tamped down violence, the Iraqis are making almost no headway toward political reconciliation. They cite a handful of gloomy progress reports trickling out of Washington that show some success in curbing violence, but little progress toward political power-sharing agreements.

There are now 162,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including 30,000 that arrived since February as part of Bush's revised strategy to provide security so Iraqi leaders could build a unity government.

Bush met on Friday with his top military chiefs at the Pentagon who expressed concern about a growing strain on American troops and their families from long and often multiple combat tours.

The Associated Press

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