President Bush yesterday said setbacks in the Iraq war have not prevented steady progress on reconstruction and security efforts, especially in two cities once controlled by insurgents.
In the second of four scheduled speeches to detail the White House strategy for victory in Iraq, the president cited Najaf, 90 miles south of Baghdad, and Mosul in northern Iraq as two cities where dramatic headway has been made.
“In places like Mosul and Najaf, residents are seeing tangible progress in their lives,” Mr. Bush said in a speech to about 300 members of the Council of Foreign Relations.
“They’re gaining a personal stake in a peaceful future, and their confidence in Iraq’s democracy is growing,” he said. “The progress in these cities is being replicated across much of Iraq. And more of Iraq’s people are seeing the real benefits that a democratic society can bring.”
The president said signs of life are returning to Najaf, citing the creation of construction jobs and the reopening of the city’s hospital. He said that even though U.S. forces lost control of Mosul after troops were redeployed and “thugs intimidated residents and overwhelmed the police,” the city is back in the hands of the Iraqis.
“Over the course of this war, we have learned that winning the battle for Iraqi cities is only the first step. We also have to win the battle after the battle by helping Iraqis consolidate their gains and keep the terrorists from returning,” Mr. Bush said.
The president also acknowledged that reconstruction in Iraq has “proceeded with fits and starts since liberation.”
“It’s been uneven. Sustaining electric power remains a major challenge,” Mr. Bush said, noting that U.S. forces shifted from undertaking large reconstruction projects to smaller improvements because “delivering visible progress … required us to focus on projects that could be completed rapidly.”
“Rebuilding a nation devastated by a dictator is a large undertaking. It’s even harder when terrorists are trying to blow up that which the Iraqis are trying to build,” he said.
The president said that although security has improved, “threats remain. There are still kidnappings and militias, and armed gangs are exerting more influence than they should in a free society.”
Mr. Bush’s speech came shortly after gunmen killed three Iraqi police officers in the northern city of Kirkuk and freed a wounded man who had been arrested on charges of plotting to kill a judge in the trial of former dictator Saddam Hussein. On Tuesday, two suicide bombers detonated explosives inside Baghdad’s main police academy, killing at least 43 persons and wounding more than 70.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Bush was not reflecting reality in Iraq.
“Just because he says things are improving there, doesn’t make it so,” the California Democrat said. “The president says the security situation on the ground is better. It is not.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid echoed her view.
“As he did last week, the president once again failed to provide a strategy for success or speak honestly to the American people about the failures in rebuilding Iraq and the challenges that lie ahead,” the Nevada Democrat said. “Instead, he cherry-picked isolated examples of Iraq’s reconstruction from two cities that provide an inaccurate and incomplete picture of the situation on the ground for most Iraqis.”
But during his speech, Mr. Bush cited Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, who has traveled to Iraq four times in the past 17 months.
“Senator Lieberman wrote about the Iraq he saw — ‘Progress is visible and practical. There are many more cars on the streets, satellite television dishes on the roofs and literally millions more cell phones in Iraq hands than before.’ He describes an Iraqi poll showing that, ‘two-thirds [of Iraqis] say they are better off than they were under Saddam Hussein,’” Mr. Bush said.