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Pentagon Denies Talk With Troops Was Staged

Pentagon officials are denying that a live video conference between President Bush (search) and U.S. troops in Iraq was staged.

"On behalf of these fine young men and women, we certainly regret any perception that they were told what to say. It is not the case," said Pentagon spokesman Lawrence Di Rita.

A live feed of troops from the Army's 42nd Infantry Division and an Iraqi soldier was beamed into the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington from Tikrit Thursday to discuss the situation in Iraq with the president.

But some critics said the video conference was staged, referring to an on-camera shot of a Pentagon official shown coaching the soldiers.

"The soldiers were advised as to the issues they should expect to discuss, and decided among themselves who would speak to each issue as it may arise," Di Rita maintained.

The event posed technological challenges, which required preparations such as advisements to soldiers on which subjects they could expect to be asked about, Di Rita said.

Some senior Pentagon officials told FOX News that they are angry that soldiers were coached at all before the video conference went live.

The White House defended the video conference on Thursday, saying that the soldiers were expressing their own thoughts.

"I think all they were doing was talking to the troops and letting them know what to expect," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, adding that the president wanted to talk with troops on the ground who have firsthand knowledge about the situation.

The questions pitched to the troops by Bush were choreographed on the president's goals for the war in Iraq and the upcoming vote this weekend on a new Iraqi constitution.

Privately, at least one senior military commander told FOX News that he's outraged by the way the young soldiers were coached.

Others pointed out that despite efforts behind closed doors at the Pentagon to spin what happened, the tape of the event tells the story of soldiers who were being 'scripted' and given answers that had been 'drilled through' — in the words used by Deputy Secretary of Defense for Internal Communications Allison Barber on a tape that captured her 45-minute practice run of the event.

Barber told the soldiers on camera shots before the video conference went live that the president was interested in three topics, including the overall security situation in Iraq, security preparations for the vote and training for Iraqi troops.

"This is an important time," Barber said to the soldiers before Bush arrived. "The president is looking forward to having just a conversation with you."

Barber continued to talk to the troops before the event went live.

"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.

Then Barber took the troops through a brief rehearsal.

"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.

Bush opened the video conference thanking the troops for their service and vowed to stay in 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.

Bush received positive feedback about the situation in Iraq from the troops.

An Iraqi soldier told the president "thank you very much for everything," adding that "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 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, 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."

FOX News' Bret Baier and Nick Simeone and the Associated Press contributed to this report.