Bush rhetoric on Iraq hard to square with facts on diplomacy, reconstruction and more

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WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush promised a diplomatic offensive to win support for Iraq from Middle Eastern countries that, if anything, have become more hostile to U.S. policy in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s execution.

In doses of rhetoric hard to square with facts in the region, Bush portrayed the ordinary people of the Middle East as being behind U.S. goals in Iraq, in his speech to the nation Wednesday night.

“They want to know: Will America withdraw and yield the future of that country to the extremists – or will we stand with the Iraqis who have made the choice for freedom?”

The war that toppled Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-run regime has rekindled the centuries-old divide between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the region, suspicions that have grown stronger since Saddam’s Dec. 30 execution.

In Saudi Arabia, the religious establishment – rooted in the hard-line Wahhabi stream of Sunni Islam – has stepped up its anti-Shiite rhetoric. Last month, about 30 clerics called on Sunnis around the Middle East to support their brethren in Iraq against Shiites and praised the insurgency.

Also in his speech:

-Bush declared “al-Qaida is still active in Iraq” and a failed U.S. mission would give such terrorists a safe haven from which to plot attacks against Americans.

Although few quarrel with that appraisal now, it is also the case that Iraq – contrary to assertions at the time – was not a magnet for al-Qaida before the U.S. invasion.

-Bush proposed $414 million to double the number of U.S. civilian workers who help coordinate local reconstruction projects. These State Department-led units, dubbed Provincial Reconstruction Teams, are to focus on projects both inside and outside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. Some will be merged into combat brigades.

He also proposed $400 million in quick-response funds for the teams to do local reconstruction and rebuilding projects.

However, the special inspector general for Iraq said in an October report that continued violence and the lack of security seriously impeded reconstruction. Workers have been prevented from traveling to project sites and the lives of contractors at rebuilding sites are in danger.

The report quoted Iraq’s minister of electricity as saying: “Every day I send repair teams, but they can’t get to the area; there are too many insurgents … no one can help.”

-The speech also reflected Bush’s evolving qualifications about the U.S. commitment to Iraq, not as ironclad now as when he said just over a year ago, “We will stay until the job is done.”

The president said in his speech that he made it clear to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other Iraqi leaders “that America’s commitment is not open-ended.”

“If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people – and it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.”

Overall, Bush presented a sobering account of the situation in Iraq, in marked contrast to past statements by the president and his commanders that the U.S. was “on the brink of success,” insurgents had been “brought to their knees,” and “we have broken the back of the insurgency.”

His once-confident challenge to the insurgents – “Bring ’em on” – was replaced by grimmer realism.

Even so, Bush rested much of his case on unknowables – among them whether Iraqi leaders can live up to their pledge to free their forces of the sectarian pressures that have severely limited their effectiveness and made some matters worse.

He declared unequivocally that when U.S. and Iraqi forces sweep insurgents out of Baghdad neighborhoods this time, they won’t just rush back in. “This time, we have the force levels we need to hold the areas that have been cleared,” he said.

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