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Bush Speech Concedes War Setbacks, Remains Hopeful

By Elisabeth Bumiller
THE NEW YORK TIMES


CLEVELAND

President Bush on Monday held out the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar as an example of U.S. success in the war, but he also acknowledged in remarks that were as grim as they were hopeful that the city’s improvements were not matched in other parts of Iraq.

In the second of a series of speeches meant to build up sagging support for the war, Bush said that U.S. forces had driven insurgents from Tal Afar in 2004, only to see them move back in two months later. The Americans learned from their mistakes, the president said, and in 2005 worked with Iraqi forces to retake lost ground and begin to bring the city back to life.

“I wish I could tell you that the progress made in Tal Afar is the same in every single part of Iraq,” Bush told the City Club of Cleveland at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel. “It’s not.”

Overall, Bush’s speech was a positive message that conceded some of the setbacks on the ground, a formulation meant to portray the president as not living in a fantasy world about the three-year war.

“In the face of continued reports about killings and reprisals, I understand how some Americans have had their confidence shaken,” Bush said. “Others look at the violence they see each night on their television screens and they wonder how I can remain so optimistic about the prospects of success in Iraq. They wonder what I see that they don’t.”

To answer that, Bush told his audience his story of Tal Afar, a city of 200,000 near the Syrian border that was a crucial base of operations for the Iraqi insurgent group al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. The insurgents had turned the city into a nightmare of violence, Bush said, with beheadings, kidnappings and mortars fired into soccer fields filled with children.

“In one grim incident, the terrorists kidnapped a young boy from the hospital and killed him, and then they booby-trapped his body and placed him along the road where his family would see him,” Bush said. “And when the boy’s father came to retrieve his son’s body, he was blown up.”

But Bush recounted how U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a major military offensive against the insurgents last fall, including the construction of an eight-foot dirt wall around the city to cut off escape routes. After successful combat operations were over, Bush said, more than 1,000 Iraqi forces were deployed to keep order. “In short, you see a city coming back to life,” Bush said.

Military analysts do not dispute Bush’s version of events, and correspondents on the ground say that the security situation in Tal Afar is significantly better than it was before the military operation last fall. But the analysts also say that the offensive required so many U.S. troops — 5,000 — that it would be difficult if not impossible to replicate in other parts of Iraq, particularly in Baghdad, and that success in Tal Afar does not translate into improved security for most Iraqis.

Democrats used Bush’s speech to step up their criticism on the three-year anniversary of the war, saying that the White House was on the verge of trading a brutal dictator, Saddam Hussein, for chaos.