Bush, Blair Concede Missteps on Iraq

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last night acknowledged a series of errors in managing the occupation of Iraq that have made the conflict more difficult and more damaging to the U.S. image abroad, even as they insisted that enough pro

Bush, Blair Concede Missteps on Iraq

President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair last night acknowledged a series of errors in managing the occupation of Iraq that have made the conflict more difficult and more damaging to the U.S. image abroad, even as they insisted that enough progress has been made that other nations should support the nascent Iraqi government. In a joint news conference, Bush said he had used inappropriate "tough talk" -- such as saying "bring 'em on" in reference to insurgents -- that he said "sent the wrong signal to people." He also said the "biggest mistake" for the United States was the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, in which guards photographed themselves sexually tormenting Iraqi prisoners, spawning revulsion worldwide. "We've been paying for that for a long period of time," he said.

Blair, who visited Baghdad this week, said he and Bush should have recognized that the fall of president Saddam Hussein would not "be the rise of a democratic Iraq, that it was going to be a more difficult process" because "you're talking about literally building the institutions of a state from scratch." While Bush increasingly has begun to acknowledge missteps in handling the war, his comments last night -- together with Blair's -- represent his most explicit acknowledgment that the administration underestimated the difficulty of the central project of his presidency. The hour-long news conference came at a moment of acute political weakness for both men, who repeatedly emphasized that Iraq is finally turning a corner and that, whatever their other misjudgments, the decision to attack Iraq remains justified. Blair appeared dour and exhausted during much of the news conference, and both leaders became most animated when talking about their sagging political fortunes.

"No question that the Iraq war has, you know, created a sense of consternation here in America," Bush said. "I mean, when you turn on your TV screen and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country." He added: "I can understand why the American people are troubled by the war in Iraq. I understand that. But I also believe the sacrifice is worth it and it's necessary." In his own recital of errors -- which came in response to a British reporter on the last question of the evening -- Blair cited the process of "de-Baathification" that immediately followed the overthrow of the old government. Many analysts say that decision to remove all of Hussein's loyalists fueled the insurgency because it threw tens of thousands of Iraqis out of work and left an administrative vacuum, and Blair agreed that it should have been done "in a more differentiated way." The prime minister's examples appeared to be a direct rebuke of both the Pentagon's insistence that a detailed "nation-building" plan was unnecessary before the invasion and the push by key members of Bush's administration for broad de-Baathification.

Bush's approval ratings have sunk to some of the lowest numbers for any president in decades, while Blair's Labor Party took a beating in recent elections. Iraq has played a role in both their troubles as American and British voters tire of the war. In the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, 32 percent of Americans approved of Bush's handling of the war and 37 percent said it has been worth the cost. Bush, and especially Blair, made the case that because Iraq now has a permanent government, other nations and international organizations -- such as the United Nations -- that have been reluctant to assist in rebuilding the country now have an obligation to step forward. Speaking of his trip to Baghdad, Blair said, "I came away thinking that the challenge is still immense, but I also came away more certain than ever that we should rise to it. "What is important now is to say that after three years, which have been very, very difficult, indeed, and when at times it looked impossible for the democratic process to work . . . then it is our duty, but it is also the duty of the whole of the international community, to get behind this government and support it," he added.

Both governments have previously signaled desires to draw down troops in Iraq. Britain in the next week or so will have reduced its deployment from 8,000 to 7,200, and officials in London have talked about making greater progress toward withdrawals in the next year. Pentagon officials have suggested they would like to withdraw about 30,000 troops by the end of the year, leaving 100,000 there. At the same time, both governments have made it clear that they envision some troops remaining for years. Bush at a previous news conference said it will be up to future presidents to decide when the last U.S. forces will leave, and an aide to Blair told British reporters this week that London hopes to pull out its last troops by 2010. Bush brushed away questions about reducing troop levels, saying it depends on discussions with the Iraqi government and the judgment of U.S. commanders. "I have said to the American people, 'As the Iraqis stand up, we'll stand down,' " he said. "But I've also said that our commanders on the ground will make that decision.

"I want our troops out, don't get me wrong," Bush added, saying that he said U.S. troops would not leave the country until Iraq is able to sustain, defend and govern itself. Blair's singling out the handling of "de-Baathification" -- that is, the effort to remove members of Hussein's ruling Baath Party from positions of power in post-invasion Iraq -- is noteworthy because Bush administration officials have been reluctant to revisit the controversy surrounding that decision publicly. Blair's raising of the issue may signal a greater willingness to acknowledge such debates, which have raged among policy analysts. The de-Baathification program was issued as Coalition Provisional Authority Order Number 1 on May 16, 2003, by L. Paul Bremer III, the chief of the U.S. occupation in 2003-2004.

It purged all Baath Party members with rank, a number estimated at 30,000 to 85,000. It was opposed by many other U.S. civilian and military officials, including the CIA station chief at the time, who thought it would drive tens of thousands of influential Iraqis into the arms of those violently opposed to the U.S. presence. On the other hand, it was consistent with the Bush administration's policy of transforming Iraq as a way of changing Middle Eastern politics. In 2005, a joint study by the inspectors general of the Pentagon and State Department concluded that de-Baathification had indeed helped destabilize post-invasion Iraq. "The CPA decision to cleanse the political system of Hussein sympathizers -- notably, the 'de-Baathification' effort -- effectively decapitated" the Iraqi police services, they wrote. While Blair singled out the de-Baathification policy, he did not mention the other major program that was started just after it, Bremer's order on May 23, 2003, that dissolved the Iraqi military and the Interior Ministry's national police force. That move added to the group of disaffected Iraqis and also lessened the ability of the occupation authority to control post-invasion Iraq. It was a move that surprised generals at U.S. Central Command, the nation's military headquarters for Iraq and the Middle East, where plans had been developed to use Iraqi army troops in reconstruction tasks.

Bremer and his allies have argued that the Iraqi military already had disbanded itself, but other officials said it could have easily been called back to bases and supported by U.S. logistics. Regarding Iran, Bush said he would consider providing incentives if it agreed to abandon nuclear enrichment activities. "If they would like to see an enhanced package, the first thing they've got to do is suspend their operations, for the good of the world," Bush said. He also said that a letter from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "interesting," but it skirted the nuclear issue. Blair earlier in the day tried to defuse talk of military confrontation with Iran. "We don't want a conflict with Iran, we have got enough on our plate doing other things," he told al-Jazeera television. "Nobody is targeting Iran. People are simply worried because they appear to be in breach of their nuclear obligations and because they are supporting terrorism around the Middle East."

The Washington Post

Güncelleme Tarihi: 20 Eylül 2018, 18:16