WASHINGTON – Describing some of the most vicious images of violence in Iraq, President Bush said Monday that all the news is not bad and enumerated several highlights that have accompanied the commitment of U.S. forces in the country.
Marking the three-year anniversary of the beginning of the liberation of Iraq, the president gave the example of Tal Afar, a city that had been besieged by Al Qaeda terrorist after Saddam Hussein was removed from power.
Speaking to the City Club of Cleveland, Bush described how many of Tal Afar's residents had lost hope when the terrorists, having been cleaned out once by coalition forces, returned two months later. After their return, the Iraqi government and coalition decided to adopt a new approach called "clear, hold and build."
"This new approach was made possible because of the significant gains made in training large numbers of highly capable Iraqi security forces. Under this new approach, Iraqi and coalition forces would clear a city of the terrorists, leave well-trained Iraqi units behind to hold the city and work with local leaders to build the economic and political infrastructure Iraqis need to live in freedom," Bush said.
Since that time, residents of Tal Afar, the largest city in Nineveh province along the Syrian border, has become one of the brightest examples of a place where democracy is taking hold. As a result of the integrated process, U.S. forces have been able to move on, Bush said.
"Iraqi forces patrolling the cities are effective, because they know the people, they know the language and they know the culture. And by turning control of these cities over to capable Iraqi troops and police, we give Iraqis confidence that they can determine their own destiny, and that frees up coalition forces to hunt high-value targets like Zarqawi," Bush said, referring to the Jordanian-born leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
But even while progress is taking hold, images in the American press continue to highlight the violence and a national unity government has not yet been formed more than three months after the election there.
White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush acknowledges that not everything has gone perfectly, but that adjustments have been made.
"This remains a difficult and tense period in Iraq," McClellan said. "Oftentimes the progress that is being made doesn't get as much attention as the dramatic and horrific images of violence that people see on their TV screens. And the president believes it's important to continue to put things in the broader context."
"I wish I could tell you that the progress made in Tal Afar is the same in every part of Iraq. It is not," Bush told the audience at the club. Yet, he said, "The example of Tal Afar gives me confidence in our strategy."
Still, more than three-fourths of the public thinks it's likely that Iraq is headed toward civil war, an AP-Ipsos poll taken in early March found. And two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. is losing ground in preventing civil war in Iraq, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken in the same period. That's up from 48 percent in January.
Still, Bush appeared before a seemingly friendly audience, from whom he took several questions and gave some lighthearted answers. Bush was asked about native Cleveland son, boxer Earnie Shavers, he was invited back to the city for the Cleveland Hungarian Revolution 50th Anniversary and he was complimented on his vision for a nuclear treaty with India and for his "very enlightening" comments about Iraq.
He was asked about terrorism's role as a sign of the apocalypse (he said he never thought of it that way) and how he restores confidence in U.S. leadership after the reasons he gave for going to war with Iraq later proved false.
"Like you, I mean, I asked that very same question: Where'd we go wrong on intelligence?" Bush said.
He said he is working to improve intelligence gathering because "the credibility of our country is essential."
On Capitol Hill, however, Bush was given a much harder time. Sen. Joe Biden, D-Dele., the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, blamed "the dangerous incompetence of this administration" for an "increasingly dismal" outcome, thus far, in Iraq.
Biden said Iraq currently is in what he called a low-grade civil war and may be on the brink of a full-blown civil war when militias fully engage in the violence.
He urged the president to personally fly to other countries to ask foreign leaders to step up so the international community as a whole, and not just the United States, can pressure Iraqi leaders to form a unity government.
"[Bush] has to take a political risk," Biden said.
Earlier in the day, Bush met at the White House with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer before flying to Cleveland, Bush said the military alliance's training mission in Iraq will help ensure that Iraqi security forces "can end up protecting the Iraqi people from those who want to kill innocent life in order to affect the outcome of that democracy."
NATO's role in Iraq has been limited to the training and some logistical support, as opposition led by France and Germany has prevented broader involvement.
Biden also renewed his longtime call for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to resign. "Imagine what that would do for American credibility," particularly in European countries, Biden said. "They want no part in a Cheney-Rumsfeld foreign policy."
Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., said the U.S. is limited in its military options because it would be too hazardous to precipitously withdraw.
Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who is running for a Senate seat against GOP incumbent Mike DeWine, suggested that voters will hold Republicans accountable for "incompetent" policy on war and economic issues in the November election.
"I hear very little support (for the Iraq war) in my travels in every region — conservative regions, more progressive regions of this state, everywhere," Brown said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.