Bush eyes Iraq endgame

His speech stresses progress training Iraqi forces, which may allow some US troops to leave.

The White House has launched a major push to convince the US public that the war in Iraq will end in victory, not just an exit - while defining "victory" as something that may include continued political fragility and insurgent attacks.

Thus in his speech to the US Naval Academy Wednesday, President Bush took care to emphasize progress made in training Iraqi troops. This progress, plus forward movement in Iraq's political process, should allow the United States to withdraw substantial numbers of its own troops over the next year, say US officials.

At the same time, the White House is acknowledging that US forces may not be leaving a pacified country in their wake. The level of sectarian grievance in the country is too strong for that, acknowledges a White House strategy paper released in conjunction with Mr. Bush's speech.

"Iraq is likely to struggle with some level of violence for many years to come," says the paper.

In some ways, the most startling thing about the new effort by the White House is that it must be made at all. Facing growing doubts at home about the war effort, Bush is set to make a series of speeches about US goals and strategies in Iraq prior to the Dec. 15 elections there. Meanwhile, the White House has produced a compilation labeled "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" - two years after the war in Iraq began.

The strategy paper largely restates previously articulated US policy. The section on the "Security Track," for instance, emphasizes three points: clearing areas of enemy control, holding these areas, and then building up Iraqi security forces sufficient to control pacified areas on their own.

"I don't see anything really new," says Hurst Hannum, a professor of international law at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. "This is more staying the course, really."

There have so many rearticulations of Iraq policy that they all begin to blend together, notes Hannum. "All Americans have to hope the administration finds a way to go forward," he says. "But they seem to be struggling."

Bush's speech, delivered to a sympathetic audience in Annapolis, Md., was a rhetorically forceful rebuttal to calls by some critics for a timetable to bring US troops home.

"I will settle for nothing less than complete victory," said Bush.

Focusing on Iraqi force development, Bush said that more than 120 Iraqi Army and police combat battalions are now fighting insurgents. Of those, 40 are taking the lead in the fight, rather than working side by side with US troops.

"They're helping to turn the tide in the struggle in freedom's favor," Bush said.

He did not say that any of the insurgent groups in Iraq had a direct hand in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But from the beginning of his speech throughout, he linked the effort in Iraq to the larger war on terrorism.

The Islamists who make up a small but brutal part of the overall Iraqi insurgency would like nothing better than to drive the US from the country, he said.

"They would then use Iraq as a base from which to launch attacks against America," said Bush.

But as critics have long pointed out, the alternative to a continued US presence in Iraq is most likely not a terrorist takeover but a fierce and open civil war between Sunnis and Shiites. In that battle, the Sunni insurgents and their nominal Islamist allies would be far from an assured victor.

Overall, Bush did not lay out a real strategy for success, claimed Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

"After nearly 1,000 days of war in Iraq, our troops, their families, and the American people deserve more than just a Bush-Cheney public relations campaign," said Senator Reid in a statement issued as the president was speaking.

Meanwhile, Bush's assessment that Iraqi forces have made substantial progress in recent months was backed up by at least one expert who has been critical of the training effort in the past.

A new report entitled "Iraqi Force Development" by Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, concludes that "very real progress is being made in many areas."

Iraqi forces have taken responsibility for security in several areas of Iraq, including roughly 87 square miles of Baghdad, notes the study.

Iraqi security forces now have responsibility for the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, among other locations.

The US wasted over a year following the ouster of Saddam Hussein, prior to beginning a serious training effort, according to Mr. Cordesman. But now "progress has come in a relatively short period of time, in the face of a brutal insurgency."

To read the text of Bush's speech, go to csmonitor.com.

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