MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Sunday will mark the third anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. About an hour ago, President George W. Bush gave a speech here in Washington on the state of the war. It's the fist in a series that he will be giving this month to boost support for the war effort. Today he emphasized the need for Iraqis to put aside their religious differences and stand together to achieve a unified country, especially in light of the bombing of the golden mosque in Summara.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Iraqis now have a chance to show the world that they have the lesson of Samarra. A country that divides into factions and dwells on old grievances risks sliding back into tyranny. The only path to a future of peace is the path of unity.
MARTIN: President Bush also held the successes of the security forces and the danger of IEDs, improvised explosive devices. He outlined a new program to combat these deadly bombs. For more, we turn now to David Green, NPR's White House correspondent. He joins us in Studio 3-A. Welcome David. Thank you for coming.
DAVID GREEN, reporting:
Thanks. It's good to be here.
MARTIN: What's President Bush hoping to accomplish with these speeches?
GREEN: Well, I think he's hoping to reclaim some support for this war. This campaign has become very unpopular, and this president, frankly, has become very unpopular according to polls that gives a snapshot right now. In December, the president gave a series of speeches on Iraq. It was the one thing we can point to, I think, over the last seven or eight months, that seemed to work a little bit. The president's poll numbers dropped markedly after Hurricane Katrina. During those speeches in December we saw an up-tick, and I think the president's starting from a low number right now, it's not going to be a fast recovery, but if one is going to happen, he's hoping this series of speeches can be a start.
MARTIN: So, he's hoping to, I guess, take the argument directly to the public?
GREEN: Directly to the public and through what he likes to call the media filter. He has always said that the world of journalism, in Washington, can prevent him and cloud the message that he's trying to get to the American people, and this is his way of at least trying to get some soundbites through to other parts of the country.
MARTIN: Well, let's listen to another one. In this one, President Bush is talking about the Iraqi security forces and their work after the golden mosque bombing.
President BUSH: And we saw the fruits of those changes in recent days in Iraq. After the Samarra bombings, it was the Iraqi security forces, not coalition forces, that restored order. In the hours after the attack, Iraqi leaders put the Iraqi security forces on alert, canceling all leaves and heightening security around mosques in critical sites. Using security plans developed for the December elections, they deployed Iraqi forces in Baghdad and to other troubled spots. Iraqi police manned checkpoints, increased patrols, and ensured that peaceful demonstrators were protected while those who turned to violence were arrested.
MARTIN: This is TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. And I'm joined by David Green, NPR's White House correspondent. What evidence does the White House have that the Iraqi forces are improving?
GREEN: It's a good question. The president often turns to numbers that he chooses and his staff chooses and suggests that the number of Iraqi battalions, the number of Iraqi forces, who are acting independently without the help of U.S. coalition forces, is going up. He presented some numbers today which he said were a bit farther up than in December. It's a very hard thing to measure, and when Pentagon officials have been grilled on Capital Hill about what these numbers really mean, there's certainly some doubts. But the president likes to say that as we see the number of battalions who are acting on their own go up, it shows that slowly but surely there's progress being made.
MARTIN: Can you amplify this a little bit? Is there, are there some specific markers, by the year's end are they supposed to control a certain amount of territory? Is there anything we can look to as a, I guess, what's the word, a real matrix for analysis here?
GREEN: There is. The president has given a goal, and it's for Iraqi forces to control more territory than coalition forces by the end of this year. It's not clear what exactly that will mean, it's not clear they'll get there. But that's a benchmark that he set up. And there've been a lot of benchmarks in terms of number of American forces killed, number of Iraqi casualties, benchmarks haven't been necessarily a good thing for this president or this White House, and I think he's trying to set up one that he hopes will show some level of success. It's worth mentioning too, an important point, right when we're getting to election time for the president's party.
MARTIN: Well, so, two questions then. Is this a realistic benchmark? Is the president taking a risk by setting a benchmark, since you pointed out he has not always been successful achieving them?
GREEN: He absolutely isn't, and whenever he sets a benchmark, it's a risk. When he declared victory on a very memorable day on the top of an aircraft carrier, we saw the danger in talking about success and benchmarks. But I think this is all the president can go on right now. He's very aware that this is a war that is appearing on television screens, that it's not going very well, and he realizes that at this point he needs to lay out some measures of success and try to reach them.
MARTIN: The president also outlined plans for the new IED program. Let's listen.
President BUSH: We're harnessing every available resource to deal with this threat. My administration has established a new high level organization at the Department of Defense led by retired four-star General Montgomery Meigs. On Saturday, General Meigs, along with the Secretary of Defense, briefed me at the White House on our plan to defeat the threat of IEDs. Our plan has three elements, targeting, training, and technology.
MARTIN: David, what do we know about this program?
GREEN: Well, it has three components, according to the president. The first is to target and eliminate the terrorists and bomb makers who are making these so- called IEDs. The second, he said, is to give special training to U.S. forces in how to protect themselves against this. And the third is to find new tactics for defending against IEDs, and he laid that out today. He met with General Meigs at the White House over the weekend, and the president will often do this, if he's going to be talking about a certain subject to the American people, the White House will schedule a meeting with someone in the administration or in the military who knows a lot about this. They'll have a meeting. The president came out afterwards and said, I learned a lot, I can now pass it on to the American people. And here he is today talking about the program, so that's a three-pronged approach.
MARTIN: In this speech, did you hear a shift in the way the White House talks about the possibility of civil war in Iraq?
GREEN: You know, it was interesting, the White house tried to give this speech and this series of speeches a new packaging. They tried to say that the American people don't get a good picture of Iraq from the 45-second bites that they see and that the president is going to explain it. They said that he's going to drill down, find new issues, and really talk about them to the American people. I've covered a lot of these, I didn't hear a lot that was new. In fact, he talked about civil war, he said there's sectarian violence. He said the terrorists are trying to spark civil war. If we look back at a speech the President gave in December, in Philadelphia, which was part of the last campaign, this is him speaking now, I know some fear the possibility that Iraq could break apart and fall into a civil war. I don't believe these fears are justified. They're not justified so long as we don't abandon the Iraqi people in an hour of need. Sounds very, very familiar, it's what we heard today.
MARTIN: And at the end of the speech, President Bush also brought Iran into the conversation. Let's listen.
President BUSH: Some of the most powerful IEDs we're seeing in Iraq today includes components that came from Iran. Our director of National Intelligence, John Negroponti, told the Congress, Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the lethality of anti-coalition attacks by providing Shia-militia with the capability to build improvised explosive devices in Iraq. Coalition forces have seized IEDs and components that were clearly produced in Iran. Such actions, along with Iran's support for terrorism, and its pursuit of nuclear weapons, are increasingly isolating Iran. And America will continue to rally the world to confront these threats.
MARTIN: Just briefly, David, why do you think the president brought Iran into this speech?
GREEN: Well, the president has tried to paint a picture of Iraq in a way that suggests that there are outsiders who are causing these problems, trying to suggest that there are outsiders trying to start a civil war. He doesn't want the picture to be that we've been unable to unify this country, the United States, so anything he can do to say there are outsiders who are causing the damage and we're going to go after them backs up his point that this is part of some global war on terrorism. Otherwise, it's a country that's in big trouble, and that's not the message he wants to send.
MARTIN: David Green, the NPR White House correspondent. Thank you so much for joining us here in Studio 3-A.
GREEN: My pleasure.