Bush Makes the Case for Progress in Iraq

President Bush says the stabilization of one Iraqi city, once run by insurgents loyal to al Qaeda, gives him confidence in the administration's strategy in Iraq. As the war opened its fourth year, the president took questions at a forum in Cleveland on Monday, urging people to look beyond the bloodshed to see the progress.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The state that decided the 2004 election is where President Bush defended his course in Iraq yesterday. Ohio is the state where Republicans are now in trouble, and one that could matter in this fall's elections. And the state drew both the president and the vice president as the Iraq war entered its fourth year.

We start our coverage with NPR's Don Gonyea.

DON GONYEA reporting:

Speaking to the City Club of Cleveland, the president said he understands how some Americans have had their confidence shaken by the images they see coming from Iraq.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don't.

GONYEA: And from there, the president went into great detail about the northern Iraqi city of Talafar. More than 200,000 people live there...

President BUSH: Roughly the population of Akron, Ohio.

GONYEA: ...but after the fall of Saddam Hussein, it was a city overrun with Iraqi insurgents. A U.S.-led operation chased al-Qaida linked terrorists from the city. But the president says that when U.S. forces moved out, the terrorists moved right back in. Then, last September, the president said, that U.S. and Iraqi security forces joined to reclaim the city. This time, he says, the insurgents have not come back because Iraqi forces are capable of holding the town.

President BUSH: You see markets opening, and you hear the sounds of construction equipment as buildings go up and homes are remade. In short, you see a city that is coming back to life.

GONYEA: It was a new approach for a president facing a skeptical public, worried that Iraq is approaching civil war. Rather than complaining generally about how good news can't cut through all the stories about bombings and death, he told a single positive story in great detail. He wants Americans to see it as a symbol of what can happen all across Iraq, even though Mr. Bush admits he can't currently claim such progress for the rest of the country.

The event in Cleveland lasted an hour and a half, with most of that time actually devoted to unscripted, unscreened questions from the audience. The first woman to step to the microphone asked the president about a new book called American Theocracy, by Political Analyst Kevin Phillips.

Unidentified Woman: He makes the point that members of your administration have reached out to prophetic Christians who see the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism as signs of the apocalypse. Do you believe this?

GONYEA: It was clearly not the kind of question the president is used to.

President BUSH: The answer is, I haven't really thought of it that way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

President BUSH: Here's how I think of it. First, I've heard of that, by the way. The, uh, I guess I'm more of a practical fellow.

GONYEA: Another member of the audience wondered if American's confidence in the president's handling of Iraq was actually shaken because of things that the administration said before the war that turned out not to be true, such as weapons of mass destruction that weren't there, and the linking of Saddam Hussein and the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The president responded with a very narrow interpretation of that last point.

President BUSH: I don't want to be argumentative, but I was very careful never to say that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks on America.

GONYEA: But it is true that the president and other administration officials did frequently mention Saddam Hussein and the September 11th attacks together during the run up to war.

Yesterday's session in Cleveland also demonstrated that audience had things on its mind other than the anniversary of the Iraq War. There were questions about immigration, about education, and about poverty. There was even an invite for the president to attend the Cleveland branch of the Hungarian Freedom Fighters Celebration in the fall.

Opening it up to such questions seems to be part of the White House plan to reverse the president's current slumping poll numbers, since it gives Mr. Bush a chance to demonstrate that he's hearing what's on the public's mind, whatever the topic, and that he's ready to vigorously defend his policies in such a forum.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: And you can listen to more of the president's question-and-answer session at NPR.org.

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