WASHINGTON — President Bush, saying that "normalcy is returning back to Iraq," argued Thursday that last year's U.S. troop "surge" has improved Iraq's security to the point where political and economic progress are blossoming as well.
Bush coupled his description of the situation in Iraq, meant to lay the groundwork for next month's report to Congress by U.S. military and diplomatic chiefs, with a forceful slap at war critics.
"Some ... seem unwilling to acknowledge that progress is taking place," Bush said in a speech at the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. He accused war opponents of constantly shifting their critique, adding: "No matter what shortcomings these critics diagnose, their prescription is always the same — retreat."
In touting progress in Iraq, however, the president appeared to gloss over developments that most would characterize as a far cry from "normalcy," even by Iraqi standards.
As he spoke, Iraqi military forces backed by U.S. airpower were engaged in deadly battles in the southern city of Basra aimed at crushing Shiite Muslim militias, particularly those loyal to cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
The State Department confirmed that a U.S. citizen was killed by the rocket and mortar fire that has pummeled the Green Zone, where U.S. and Iraqi leaders live and work.
Bush's speech is likely to be his last on Iraq before Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker report to Congress on April 8-9.
After those reports, Bush appears certain to endorse delaying further U.S. troop withdrawals once the surge troops are moved out of Iraq, leaving about 140,000 U.S. military personnel in the country. It was that decision that he sought to justify Thursday.
Bush praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's "bold decision" to confront the Shiite groups and cast it as evidence that the Iraqi military is increasingly confident and capable of acting on its own.
But there were large protests in Baghdad against Maliki. Many Iraqis see the fighting as pitting one Iranian-backed Shiite faction, represented by Maliki's government, against another Iranian-backed Shiite faction represented by Sadr. The fighting threatens to unravel a cease-fire that Sadr declared last August.
Democrats in recent days have stepped up their criticism of the war.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a CNN appearance Sunday that there's been "foot-dragging" by Iraqi leaders on key political disputes. What's needed, Wyden said, is to get troops out of Iraq. "It seems to me you put off those troop withdrawals, you send exactly the wrong message to the Iraqis," he said.
On Thursday, Bush fired back.
"When it takes time for Iraqis to reach agreement, it is not 'foot-dragging,' as one senator described it," Bush said. "They're striving to build a modern democracy on the rubble of three decades of tyranny." He noted that the U.S. Congress itself has been on a "two-week Easter recess."
Bush gave a litany of economic and political developments in Iraq, such as falling inflation and the approval this month of a provincial powers law, that he said showed that the "surge" of 30,000 U.S. troops into Iraq last year has met its goal. That goal was to improve security so that Iraqi leaders could begin political reconciliation.
"The surge has opened the door to ... strategic victory," Bush declared.
To buttress his case, the president cited "one scholar and critic of the war," who recently wrote, "No one can spend some 10 days visiting the battlefields in Iraq without seeing major progress in every area" and, with sustained U.S. support, "there is now a very real chance that Iraq will emerge as a stable and secure state."
The scholar Bush cited is Anthony Cordesman, a respected military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who's been critical of how the war has been waged but hasn't urged troop withdrawals.
Yet Bush didn't mention more chastening comments by Cordesman in his generally positive Feb. 13 report on a visit to Iraq.
"Serious threats can still bring defeat or paralysis over the coming years," Cordesman warned.
And, he cautioned, "progress is dependent on major additional Iraqi government action well beyond the passing of the Iraqi FY (fiscal year) 2008 budget, the provincial powers act, and the laws easing de-Baathification."
Bush repeatedly cited those three Iraqi government actions Thursday to help make his case that Iraq is progressing.
After the speech, congressional Democrats remained defiant.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., insisted: "The American people have made their judgment on this war and on the administration's prosecution of it.
"It is long past time that we demanded that the Iraqis step up and take responsibility for the future of their nation, that our troops begin to responsibly redeploy and that the United States begin to repair the readiness of our armed forces."
Iraq report by Anthony Cordesman of CSIS: www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/080213(underscore)situationiniraq.pdf
Text of Bush's speech: