Iraq Security Improvements Setting Stage for Reforms, Bush Says

By David McKeeby
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington –The Iraqi government and coalition forces are making progress toward securing the country, laying the groundwork for future steps forward on political reconciliation and key reforms, President Bush says.

“Our strategy is built on the premise that progress on security will pave the way for political progress,” Bush told White House reporters July 12. He called the news conference to announce the release of an interim progress report to Congress on the administration’s “new way forward” in Iraq, which was initiated earlier in 2007.

The conflict in Iraq has gone through several phases, Bush said, from an operation to liberate the country from Baathist domination to elections returning sovereignty to the Iraqi people, and from a wave of sectarian violence instigated by terrorists to the current U.S.-Iraqi “surge” of more than 25,000 U.S. reinforcements to help Iraqis confront extremists and help safeguard their fledgling democracy.  

In May, Congress made additional U.S. military spending in Iraq contingent on 18 indicators, or “benchmarks,” designed to evaluate the effectiveness of coalition-trained Iraqi security forces and the performance of the country’s elected officials.

Among areas of progress cited in the report, Bush highlighted the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades to support the Baghdad Security Plan, the establishment of joint coalition and Iraqi security stations across the capital Baghdad, successful allocation of $10 billion worth of reconstruction funds, and the increased capability and independence of Iraqi military units working with coalition forces in and around Baghdad to disrupt sectarian militias and terrorist cells. 

“Our top priority is to help the Iraqis protect their population,” Bush said. “So we've launched an offensive in and around Baghdad to go after extremists, to buy more time for Iraqi forces to develop and to help normal life and civil society take root in communities and neighborhoods throughout the country. We're helping enhance the size, capabilities and effectiveness of the Iraqi security forces, so the Iraqis can take over the defense of their own country. We're helping the Iraqis take back their neighborhoods from the extremists.”

West of Baghdad, in Anbar province, Bush pointed to the coalition’s success in joining forces with Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaida in Iraq, which has sought to establish a terrorist safe haven in the region to serve as a base for plotting future attacks in Iraq and beyond.

“The people on the ground there are sick and tired of violence and being threatened by people like al-Qaida who have no positive vision for the future,” Bush said. “And there's been a significant turn where now Sunni sheikhs and Sunni citizens are working with the coalition to bring justice to al-Qaida killers.”

It is a formula that coalition forces already are replicating in other unstable provinces, such as Diyala, Bush added.

“Those of us who believe the battle in Iraq can and must be won see the satisfactory performance on several of the security benchmarks as a cause for optimism,” he said.

On eight other congressionally identified indicators, Bush acknowledged that more progress is needed. For example, on the political front, the Iraqi parliament needs to redouble its efforts on election laws, on legislation to distribute equitably Iraq’s energy revenues and on measures to allow former members of the Baath party to return to the work force. 

The report also raises concern about political interference with army and police operations as well the need for more Iraqi security forces to operate independently.    

After decades of tyranny that exploited divisions between Iraq’s Shia majority and its Sunni Arab minority, such reforms are difficult but essential for the future of Iraq and the wider region, Bush said.  

“Living under the brutal tyrant Saddam Hussein created a lot of anxiety and a lot of tensions and a lot of rivalry.  And it's going to take a while to work it through,” Bush said.

“I want the Iraqi government to understand that we expect there to be reconciliation,” Bush said, “that we'd want to see laws passed. I think they've got that message. They know full well that the American government and the American people expect to see tangible evidence of working together. That's what the benchmarks are aimed to do.”

On two other benchmarks - developing an amnesty process for former insurgents and disarming militias - the report finds that current conditions preclude decisive action. 

The report, Bush said, serves as a snapshot of the conflict’s current status to be compared against a more substantive report in September, when coalition commander General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker will assess how the increased military presence and regional diplomatic engagement have helped shape conditions on the ground.

“By that time, we hope to see further improvement in the positive areas, the beginning of improvement in the negative areas,” Bush said.  “We’ll also have a clearer picture of how the new strategy is unfolding, and be in a better position to judge where we need to make any adjustments.”

A transcript of Bush’s remarks and the full text of the interim Iraq report are available from the White House Web site.