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U.S.: Bush Speech On Iraq Focuses On Training Local Forces, Offers No Timetable

Bush speaking at Annapolis (AFP) U.S. President George W. Bush is going on the offensive in an effort to restore support for the war in Iraq. He has planned four speeches leading up to Iraq's parliamentary elections on 15 December. He delivered the first of those speeches today before a supportive audience of cadets at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington. At the same time, the White House issued a 35-page document titled "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq," which elaborated on Bush's themes.

Washington, 30 November 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bush's speech offered no new details of his strategy in Iraq, but gave new focus to many of the points he has made several times in the past.

Bush again called for patience, saying rebuilding Iraq will take time, and he again rejected the idea of setting any timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. forces, saying that would serve only to abandon Iraq and allow insurgents simply to wait until the Americans are gone.

The president's emphasis in today's speech was the training of Iraqi forces so they take increasing responsibility for the country's security, allowing American troops to assume new duties.

"We [U.S. forces] will continue to shift from providing security and conducting operations against the enemy nationwide [in Iraq], to conducting more specialized operations targeted at the most dangerous terrorists. We will increasingly move out of Iraqi cities, reduce the number of bases from which we operate, and conduct fewer patrols and convoys," Bush said.

Bush's planned series of speeches comes at a time when more than 2,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed and support for his Iraq policy is at an all-time low. Recent polls have found more than 60 percent of respondents who say they disapprove of the policy, and the president's overall approval ratings are less than 40 percent.

These same surveys show that a growing number of Americans want to know when troops will be coming home. Bush said that time will come because of tangible progress in training Iraqi forces.

"As the Iraqi forces gain experience and the political process advances, we will be able to decrease our troop levels in Iraqi without losing our capability to defeat the terrorists," he said.

Bush's speech was repeatedly cheered by the Naval cadets, but the reaction from prominent opposition Democrats in Congress was less favorable.

Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), who unsuccessfully challenged Bush for the presidency a year ago, said most Iraqis resent the U.S. presence in their country. Therefore, he said, to begin withdrawing troops would help lessen the severity of the insurgency.

"In the end, the strategy for exit [from Iraq] is, in fact, part of the strategy of success. They go hand-in-hand, and that is a reality that the president and this administration need to understand," Kerry said.

Speaking with Kerry at the Capitol was another Democrat, Senator Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island). He said Bush's speech sidestepped the concerns that Americans have about the war.

"Again, the president failed to answer the questions that all Americans are asking: How do we know if progress is being made there? How do we measure success? How much longer should America expect to be in Iraq? We understand that any type of redeployment is based upon the conditions on the ground, but we have to have a sense of how long it will take," Reed said.

Reed, long a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, visited Iraq last month and today specifically addressed what he called Bush's "over-optimistic" view of the quality of Iraq's security forces. According to Reed, these forces appear to be merely local militias in national uniforms. Given the ethnic strife among Iraq's Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish factions, he said he is worried about who is giving them their orders.

Some analysts also see nothing new in Bush’s speech but note that it strikes a defiant tone amid mounting calls from Democrats to set a timetable for troop withdrawals. James Denselow, an Iraq analyst at the London-based Chatham House, told RFE/RL on 30 November that the speech was aimed directly at U.S. voters.

"The best way to describe [President's Bush's speech about the U.S. strategy in Iraq ] is as an offensive exit -- conditions-based withdrawal, as he said. And it is all linked, of course, to national security at home. It clearly is, essentially, gathering together all elements of U.S. policy up to this point. It is not saying anything new, but simply putting everything together in a very comprehensive package so that it can be delivered to, seemingly, the American public -- who are certainly questioning whether the troops should continue in Iraq," Denselow told RFE/RL.

Denselow said it remains to be seen whether the target audience will accept all of Bush’s arguments, in particular that Iraqi security forces are now finally building strength.

"The absence of real information coming out of [Iraq] means that [U.S.] officials can use statistics to paint any picture they want," he said. "This is particularly true in the case of the building of the Iraqi security forces. There is a real question about force reliability and capability here. We've seen militias on numerous occasions take matters into their own hands. The Kurdish peshmerga has a lot of sway in its own territory. Shi'a militias dominate around Basra. The police force is totally, utterly infiltrated by these militia. It is interesting to see whether people will actually believe these statistics [presented by President Bush about the training of Iraqi security forces]."

("The New York Times" reported on 1 December that casualty statistics for Iraqi forces are incomplete, but police and soldiers are clearly bearing an increasing share of the fight. The newspaper reported that "at least 2,367 Iraqi soldiers and police have been killed this year, compared with 1,300 prior to 2005, according to the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, a website that tracks Iraqi deaths through news reports.")

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