Bush Lauds Iraq Progress, Pushes War on Terrorism

In speeches at the Pentagon and the Heritage Foundation, President Bush and Vice President Cheney praise what they called progress in the war in Iraq and press their case for executive power in pursuing terrorists at home and abroad.

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President Bush got a briefing at the Pentagon today, and afterwards he spoke at length about his view of the situation in Iraq. He did not mention the bombings or the bloodshed that took place today. He did say he expects violence to continue in the country, but added that the recent parliamentary elections dealt a blow to the insurgency. NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Reporters who cover the Pentagon and reporters who cover the White House and made the trip across the Potomac with Mr. Bush were all kept away from the president as he met with civilian and uniformed military officials. After nearly two hours, Mr. Bush emerged.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I just finished an important meeting, a briefing, with members of my national security team.

GREENE: There was surely much in that classified briefing that the president would not discuss, but he said the message he's getting from his advisers on Iraq is one of progress. 2005 was a year of progress, Mr. Bush said, reminding reporters that Iraqis went to the polls three times.

Pres. BUSH: We had the January elections, we got the constitutional elections, we had the elections last December when nearly 11 million people defied the terrorists to vote. The turnout in that country was 70 percent. Part of our strategy for defeating the enemy in Iraq is for there to be a viable political process. And when 70 percent of the people show up to vote, that's a good sign. You see, people are saying, `I want to participate in the democratic process.' The Iraqis showed great courage.

GREENE: And Iraqis are showing signs that they can handle security on their own, he argued. He said there are now 50 battle-ready Iraqi battalions leading military operations, and that if this trend continues, an increasing number of US troops will be able to come home. Mr. Bush mentioned some troop reductions already announced by the Pentagon.

Pres. BUSH: The adjustment is under way. This adjustment will result in a net decrease of several thousand troops below the pre-election baseline of 138,000 US troops in Iraq. The decrease comes in addition to the reduction of about 20,000 troops who were in Iraq to assist with security during the December elections.

GREENE: While not referring to any specific incidents, the president did say he expects violence will continue in Iraq, and he briefly paid tribute to Americans who died fighting in 2005.

Pres. BUSH: During the past year, we lost some really good folks who wore the uniform of the United States of America. We pray for their loved ones. We pray for the comfort of those who had a sorrowful holiday season because a seat at the table was empty.

GREENE: The White House is hoping that homecomings for US soldiers can be one of the their themes in 2006. The unknown, of course, is whether images of violence like those of recent days in Iraq will complicate their message.

The other challenge for the White House is to confront simmering criticism of Mr. Bush's anti-terrorism policies. In coming weeks, lawmakers will be investigating whether Mr. Bush had the power to sign off on a program that allows the government, without a warrant, to eavesdrop on phone calls between Americans and suspected terrorists abroad. Even some Republicans have questioned whether Mr. Bush overstepped his authority. Today, the president left it to Vice President Dick Cheney to take on critics of the program before a friendly audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: There are no communications more important to the safety of the United States than those related to al-Qaeda that have one end in the United States. If we'd been able to do this before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two hijackers who subsequently flew a jet into the Pentagon. They were in the United States communicating with al-Qaeda associates overseas, but we did not know they were here plotting until it was too late.

GREENE: It has been noted in the past that as non-citizens and non-permanent residents, the al-Qaeda members Cheney referred to would not have been covered by the same constitutional protections now in dispute, and that the government could have monitored their phones with a warrant including one granted retroactively. David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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