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At the White House news briefing today, reporters asked whether the soldiers in today's videoconference with the president had been scripted. Spokesman Scott McClellan said no, that they were expressing their own candid views on the situation in Iraq. NPR's David Greene has this report on the president's videoconference and the preparations for it.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

Whenever President Bush has what the White House calls `a conversation with citizens,' presidential aides leave nothing to chance. Whether the subject is Social Security, the economy or the war in Iraq, every effort is made to smooth the presentation. Usually rehearsals are conducted before the news media are present, but today, sound of the preparation was available, streaming out of an audio line a half-hour before Mr. Bush came into the room to chat with 10 US soldiers and one Iraqi soldier in Tikrit. Here's what we heard.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. ALLISON BARBER (Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Internal Communication): All right. Well, you know what, you guys? This is an important time. The president's looking forward to having just a conversation with you. So let's have a good time today. You look great. You're doing a fabulous job. I'm going to ask somebody to grab those two water bottles against the wall and move those out of the camera shot for me.

GREENE: Allison Barber is deputy assistant to the secretary of Defense for internal communication. It was her job to speak to the soldiers from the White House, to give them the lay of the land before they spoke to the commander in chief.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. BARBER: Captain Pratt, if you have the microphone and the president hears something and he wants more information, you just keep that microphone and talk to the president.

Captain STEPHEN PRATT (42nd Infantry Division): OK.

Ms. BARBER: All right? But if he gives us a question that's not something that we've scripted, Captain Kennedy, you're going to have that mike, and that's your chance to impress us all.

GREENE: But to avoid such unplanned moments, Barber went through the themes of the president's questions to give the soldiers a chance to go through who would answer each.

(Soundbite of recording)

Unidentified Man: That's going to go to Captain Williams, and I'm going to give it back to Captain Kennedy.

Ms. BARBER: And in the last 10 months, what kind of progress have we seen?

Unidentified Man: To Master Sergeant Lombardo.

GREENE: The soldiers were in place, all in fatigues, sitting on metal folding chairs in front of a few palm trees. They were beamed to the White House on a large plasma screen. In the run-through, Barber took the role of the president.

(Soundbite of recording)

Ms. BARBER: All right, here we go. `I'm interested in how your pre-election operations are going. Can you give me a quick update on what you've been doing for the last couple weeks?'

Captain BRENT KENNEDY: Good morning, Mr. President. My name is Captain Brent Kennedy from Maple Valley, Washington. Here in Tikrit to my right is Iraqi Sergeant Major Akil(ph) from the 5th Iraqi Army Division. We are working in northern Iraq right now with an operation that we call Operation Saratoga. It's a surge of operations to prepare for the referendum. We are currently...

GREENE: And then it came time for the real show with the real president.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: One of the, you know, questions I have is about the pre-election operations, about what you've been doing and what's your strategy and how do you think it's going for--to make sure that people have a chance to vote. By the way, you're in Tikrit, as I understand it, as well. That's kind of an interesting place to be. It's Saddam's old stomping grounds.

Capt. KENNEDY: Good morning, Mr. President, from Tikrit. I'm Captain Brent Kennedy. To my right is Sergeant Major Akil from the 5th Iraqi Army Division. We're working together here with the Iraqis and Task Force Liberty for the upcoming referendum. We're surging in an operation called Operation Saratoga that includes the securing of over 1,250 polling sites.

GREENE: President Bush got to one soldier, Master Sergeant Corine Lombardo, who seemed to catch his attention when she mentioned that she was in New York shortly after the September 11th attacks in 2001.

Master Sergeant CORINE LOMBARDO: We had the honor of your visit in New York City on November 11th in 2001 when you recognized our Rainbow Soldiers...

Pres. BUSH: Yeah.

Master Sgt. LOMBARDO: ...for their recovery and rescue efforts at ground zero.

Pres. BUSH: Were you there?

Master Sgt. LOMBARDO: We began our fighting against terrorism in the wake of 9/11, and we're proud to continue it here in north-central New York--north-central Iraq.

Pres. BUSH: Let me ask you something. Were you there when I came to New York?

Master Sgt. LOMBARDO: Yes, I was, Mr. President.

Pres. BUSH: Yeah, I thought you looked familiar.

Master Sgt. LOMBARDO: Well, thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Pres. BUSH: I probably look familiar to you, too.

Master Sgt. LOMBARDO: Over the past 10...

GREENE: The president wound up chatting with the troops, hearing from an officer from Tennessee.

First Lieutenant GREG MURPHY (278th Regimental Combat Team): Good morning, Mr. President.

Pres. BUSH: Go ahead.

1st Lt. MURPHY: I'm First Lieutenant Greg Murphy from the 278th Regimental Combat Team from the Volunteer State of Tennessee. I want to tell you, sir, that we appreciate you coming with us today for this interview and hearing us express our confidence in the Iraqi security force's role in the upcoming referendum. Sir, we're prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing a success.

GREENE: Then the president returned to the Oval Office and the soldiers returned to preparing Tikrit for Saturday's referendum. David Greene, NPR News, Washington.

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