WASHINGTON – It was billed as a conversation with U.S. troops, but the questions President Bush asked on a teleconference call Thursday were choreographed to match his goals for the war in Iraq and Saturday's vote on a new Iraqi constitution.
"This is an important time," Allison Barber, deputy assistant defense secretary, said, coaching the soldiers before Bush arrived. "The president is looking forward to having just a conversation with you."
Barber said the president was interested in three topics: the overall security situation in Iraq, security preparations for the weekend vote and efforts to train Iraqi troops.
As she spoke in Washington, a live shot of 10 soldiers from the Army's 42nd Infantry Division and one Iraqi soldier was beamed into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building (search) from Tikrit — the birthplace of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"I'm going to ask somebody to grab those two water bottles against the wall and move them out of the camera shot for me," Barber said.
A brief rehearsal ensued.
"OK, so let's just walk through this," Barber said. "Captain Kennedy, you answer the first question and you hand the mike to whom?"
"Captain Smith," Kennedy said.
"Captain. Smith? You take the mike and you hand it to whom?" she asked.
"Captain Kennedy," the soldier replied.
And so it went.
"If the question comes up about partnering — how often do we train with the Iraqi military — who does he go to?" Barber asked.
"That's going to go to Captain Pratt," one of the soldiers said.
"And then if we're going to talk a little bit about the folks in Tikrit — the hometown — and how they're handling the political process, who are we going to give that to?" she asked.
Before he took questions, Bush thanked the soldiers for serving and reassured them that the U.S. would not pull out of Iraq until the mission was complete.
"So long as I'm the president, we're never going to back down, we're never going to give in, we'll never accept anything less than total victory," Bush said.
The president told them twice that the American people were behind them.
"You've got tremendous support here at home," Bush said.
Less than 40 percent in an AP-Ipsos poll taken in October said they approved of the way Bush was handling Iraq. Just over half of the public now say the Iraq war was a mistake.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan (search) said Thursday's event was coordinated with the Defense Department but that the troops were expressing their own thoughts. With satellite feeds, coordination often is needed to overcome technological challenges, such as delays, he said.
"I think all they were doing was talking to the troops and letting them know what to expect," he said, adding that the president wanted to talk with troops on the ground who have firsthand knowledge about the situation.
The soldiers all gave Bush an upbeat view of the situation.
The president also got praise from the Iraqi soldier who was part of the chat.
"Thank you very much for everything," he gushed. "I like you."
On preparations for the vote, 1st Lt. Gregg Murphy of Tennessee said: "Sir, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing a success. ... Back in January, when we were preparing for that election, we had to lead the way. We set up the coordination, we made the plan. We're really happy to see, during the preparation for this one, sir, they're doing everything."
On the training of Iraqi security forces, Master Sgt. Corine Lombardo from Scotia, N.Y., said to Bush: "I can tell you over the past 10 months, we've seen a tremendous increase in the capabilities and the confidences of our Iraqi security force partners. ... Over the next month, we anticipate seeing at least one-third of those Iraqi forces conducting independent operations."
Lombardo told the president that she was in New York City on Nov. 11, 2001, when Bush attended an event recognizing soldiers for their recovery and rescue efforts at Ground Zero. She said the troops began the fight against terrorism in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks (search) and were proud to continue it in Iraq.
"I thought you looked familiar," Bush said, and then joked: "I probably look familiar to you, too."
Paul Rieckhoff, director of the New York-based Operation Truth (search), an advocacy group for U.S. veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, denounced the event as a "carefully scripted publicity stunt." Five of the 10 U.S. troops involved were officers, he said.
"If he wants the real opinions of the troops, he can't do it in a nationally televised teleconference," Rieckhoff said. "He needs to be talking to the boots on the ground and that's not a bunch of captains."