Fact-Checking the President's Speech on Iraq

This week, President Bush and members of Congress have been focused on the war in Iraq and how well it is — or is not — succeeding. Both sides have made a lot of sometimes competing claims about the situation there. On Thursday night, it was President Bush's turn, as he addressed the nation from the Oval Office. NPR has this analysis of some of the president's assertions:

President Bush: "We must help Iraq defeat those who threaten its future and also threaten ours."

Analysis: The president doesn't clearly define who he is talking about. "Those" who threaten Iraq and "those" who threaten the U.S. are not one and the same. Iraq's government faces sectarian challenges, including Sunni and Shiite death squads, and al-Qaeda in Iraq. America is threatened by al-Qaeda, which carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. But there is no perceived threat in the United States from such Shiite militia groups as the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps or the Sunni militia group, the 1920 Brigades.

President Bush: "Anbar Province is a good example of how our strategy is working."

Analysis: Not exactly. The sheiks of Anbar Province started cooperating with the U.S. military many months before the "surge" even began. It was the efforts of officers like Army Col. Sean MacFarland, who moved his troops into the Ramadi neighborhoods, that caught the attention of tribal sheiks. One of the first was Sheik Abdul-Sattar Abu Risha, who was assassinated this week. He and others approached MacFarland and agreed to provide their tribesmen as police officers. The police grew from several hundred to many thousands. Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was briefed by MacFarland on his success in February — just as the surge was beginning. Still, the surge helped further these efforts and eliminate pockets of al-Qaeda.

President Bush: "And with the help of our Provincial Reconstruction Teams, new jobs are being created and local governments are meeting again."

Analysis: This is partly true. The PRTs are helping with some seed money. But the Iraqis are still lagging behind in spending their own money. President Bush said in January that the Iraqis would spend $10 billion this year for capital projects. So far this summer, they have spent just $3 billion. Part of the problem is an immature bureaucracy and onerous laws designed to prevent corruption. Another problem, American military officers say, is sectarianism. The Shiite-led government is not doing enough in Sunni areas of Baghdad and the Anbar Province.

President Bush: "The government has not met its own legislative benchmarks ... Yet Iraq's leaders are getting some things down. For example, they have passed a budget. They are sharing oil revenues with the provinces. They are allowing former Baathists to rejoin Iraq's military or receive government pensions."

Analysis: This is happening, but it's being done on an ad hoc basis and falls far short of the benchmarks Mr. Bush laid out in January. Hope for an oil law has evaporated. And there is little hope for a sweeping de-Baathification law. In January, the president also said he expected provincial elections later this year, but there was no mention of that in his latest speech. U.S. officials say there is no chance those elections will take place this year. The Sunnis were hoping for a vote to give them a greater say in local governance. Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer, who was the top Marine in Sunni-dominant Anbar Province, told NPR last fall that unless there were elections by the spring of 2007, "we're going to have real problems."

President Bush: "The key now is to link this progress in the provinces to progress in Baghdad."

Analysis: The U.S. military is using what it calls a "bottom up" approach. It works with local leaders to provide both security and economic development in places like the Anbar Province, while also working the "top down" with the central government in Baghdad. But some military officers worry about the future course of this effort. Is it giving more power to local leaders, especially Sunnis, who despise what they call the "Iranian influenced" government in Baghdad? Will they serve as a counterweight to Baghdad, perhaps making a civil war even more deadly?

President Bush: "And (Petraeus) expects by July, we well be able to reduce our troop levels from 20 combat brigades to 15."

Analysis: This may sound greater than it is. The surge included five brigades that were part of the 30,000-strong U.S. force. Among them are some 9,000 support troops, such as truck drivers, bomb disposal experts and military police. Gen. Petraeus says he is uncertain how many of those support troops will be sent home. Also, by next summer, the U.S. will still have at least 130,000 troops in Iraq — roughly the same number that rolled into the country in March 2003.

President Bush: "Over time, our troops will shift from leading operations to partnering with Iraqi forces, and eventually to overwatching those forces."

Analysis: This is something the administration has been saying for years, but the question is when will it happen? The president doesn't offer a hint. Some military officers say it could be years before American troops reach that "overwatch" position. Gen. Petraeus is also vague. His charts offer a descending staircase of troop reductions — but without dates. Still, his final stair step still shows five U.S. brigades in Iraq. That's at least 25,000 to 30,000 troops.

President Bush: "You must demand that your leaders make the tough choices needed to achieve reconciliation."

Analysis: The president, military leaders and members of Congress have been saying this to the Iraqis for years, but there has been little or no reconciliation. The key question for U.S. leaders is how much time do you give the Iraqis to reconcile? Is it even achievable? Or does another way, such as partitioning, make more sense?

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