Iraqi situation depends on who is asked

Posted: Sunday, September 21, 2003

WASHINGTON President Bush has accused nameless ''revisionist historians'' of seeking to undermine him on Iraq by rewriting the course of events. But he and his top advisers have offered some revisions of their own.

Administration officials, for instance, offer repeated upbeat progress reports on Iraq even in the face of rising American casualties, growing costs and more frequent acts of sabotage. They continue to talk about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, even though none has been found.

They defend stationing 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and the request to Congress for $87 billion more for Iraq and Afghanistan even though the troop size and reconstruction costs far exceed what officials previously said were needed.

Bush, meanwhile, continues to make light of the fact that countries such as France, Germany, Russia, India and Turkey have given a chilly reaction to his request for more U.N. peacekeeping help.

''In terms of reconstruction aid, we're getting help and (Secretary of State) Colin Powell continues to ask for help,'' Bush said during a news conference at Camp David last week with Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Bush speaks about Iraq to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday. ''We'll remind our European friends that we're making good progress there,'' he said.

Yet a new U.S. draft resolution designed to increase international involvement in Iraq's rebuilding will not be ready in time for his speech, Bush acknowledged last week.

For an administration known for discipline, Bush and senior members of his team have lately seemed to be on different pages when it comes to Iraq.

After months of hinting vaguely at connections between the Sept. 11 hijackers and Saddam Hussein, Bush said last week there was ''no evidence of such a link.''

Only days earlier, Vice President Dick Cheney said on NBC's ''Meet the Press'' that ''I think it's not surprising that people make that connection.''

Cheney resurrected earlier claims that Iraq had sought to acquire uranium in Africa for nuclear weapons; the CIA has discredited such claims. Other officials have apologized that the allegation found its way into Bush's State of the Union address.

The vice president also repeated an old assertion that two truck trailers found in Iraq were mobile biological laboratories, even though U.S. intelligence analysts have questioned that. One Defense Intelligence Agency report said the trailers were more likely used for hydrogen production for military weather balloons.

The administration's sometimes conflicting accounts of the realities of postwar Iraq, its upbeat assessments and its lack of specifics on troops and costs are fueling Democratic attacks.

Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, one of the strongest Democratic supporters of the war, stunned administration officials last week when he urged Bush to fire advisers who helped set U.S. policy in Iraq. That was widely seen as a stinging rebuke of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his top deputy, Paul Wolfowitz.

Murtha did not name them. But he said he had been misled into voting for the war by top administration officials.

Said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota: ''I think that the administration needs to be more clear.''

Bush's defenders deny that the administration is manipulating facts or deliberately making assertions that are not true.

''Fighting this war on terror is something nobody's ever done before, so there will obviously be mistakes here and there,'' said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. He said that when a mistake is made, ''they quickly correct it.''

Rick Barton of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an expert on postwar reconstruction who recently returned from a fact-finding tour of Iraq, suggests the administration is bound to keep making mistakes because it does not yet have a grasp on what rebuilding Iraq will fully entail.

''I don't think throwing money at it is the answer,'' he said. For one thing, he said, ''We have not engaged the Iraqi public in a sufficiently effective way.''

The White House continues to emphasize the positive.

''We continue to receive a lot of positive feedback from the Iraqi people,'' said White House spokesperson Scott McClellan.

''We always recognize there are some difficulties and frustrations that happen when you're moving toward transferring this responsibility back to the Iraqi people. ... It takes time,'' he added.

Tom Raum has covered Washington for The Associated Press since 1973, including five presidencies.

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