President Bush marked the anniversary of the Iraq war Sunday by touting the efforts to build democracy there and avoiding any mention of the daily violence that rages three years after he ordered an invasion.
The president didn’t utter the word “war.”
“We are implementing a strategy that will lead to victory in Iraq,” the president assured a public that is increasingly skeptical that he has a plan to end the fighting after the deaths of more than 2,300 U.S. troops.
Administration officials repeated the mantra that progress continues toward building a unified Iraqi government and nation.
“Now is the time for resolve, not retreat,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld wrote in a column for The Washington Post. “Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis.”
Yet there were acknowledgments from the top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq that the situation is fragile and that he did not predict the strength of the insurgency.
“I did not think it would be as robust as it has been,” Gen. George W. Casey said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And it’s something that, obviously, with my time here on the ground, my thinking on that has gained much greater clarity and insight.”
Bush did not mention the insurgent attacks, the car bombs or the mounting Iraqi deaths in a two-minute statement to reporters outside the White House after returning from a weekend at Camp David. Avoiding the word “war,” he called the day “the third anniversary of the beginning of the liberation of Iraq.”
The president only indirectly referred to the violence when he said he spent the morning reflecting on the sacrifices made by U.S. troops. Bush said he spoke by phone earlier in the day with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and had received a positive report.
The White House is trying to remind the disapproving public of Bush’s vision for Iraq with a public relations blitz. The president plans to give a series of speeches on Iraq, beginning Monday in Cleveland.
More than three-fourths of the public thinks it’s likely that Iraq is headed toward civil war, according to an AP-Ipsos poll taken in early March.
And two-thirds of Americans say the U.S. is losing ground in preventing civil war in Iraq, according to a Pew Research Center poll taken in the same period. That’s up from 48 percent in January.
On Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney did not express any regret for predicting in the days before the invasion that U.S. troops would be greeted as liberators or his assessment 10 months ago that the insurgency was in its “last throes.” On the contrary, he said the optimistic statements “were basically accurate, reflect reality.”
Like Bush, Cheney touted the political progress in Iraq, pointing out that the Iraqis have met the political deadlines set for them and predicting they will form a unified government “shortly.”
In an interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Cheney flatly rejected a statement made earlier Sunday by Iraq’s former interim prime minister that the increasing attacks killing dozens each day across his country can only be described as a civil war. “If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is,” Ayad Allawi told the British Broadcasting Corp.
Instead, Cheney described the violence as the actions of terrorists who have “reached a stage of desperation.”
“What we’ve seen is a serious effort by them to foment a civil war,” Cheney said. “But I don’t think they’ve been successful.”
Cheney blamed the negative perception on news coverage of the daily violence instead of the progress being made toward democracy.
“There is a constant sort of perception, if you will, that’s created because what’s newsworthy is the car bomb in Baghdad,” the vice president said. “It’s not all the work that went on that day in 15 other provinces.”
White House critics bemoaned the fact that the third anniversary of fighting ever came to pass and accused the Bush administration of incompetence.
“By any measure, in my view, we’re worse off in Iraq today than we were a year ago,” Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” He cited increased deaths and violence, incomplete government services and a long path to building a consensus government.
Rumsfeld urged Americans to continue supporting the fight and said he believes history will show that the terrorists were defeated. Meanwhile, his detractors issued another round of criticism and calls for his resignation.
In a New York Times column, retired Gen. Paul D. Eaton, who was in charge of training the Iraqi military from 2003-2004, called the defense secretary “incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically, and is far more responsible for what has happened to our important mission in Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld must step down.”
Nearly three years ago Bush announced the end to major combat in Iraq.
Last week, U.S. forces launched Operation Swarmer, described by the Pentagon as the biggest air assault since April 2003. However, Casey said Sunday that he wouldn’t categorize Swarmer as a major combat operation, noting that other operations had used far more troops.
“It was an operation to go out into an almost uninhabited area,” Casey said. “I think, frankly, it got a little bit more hype than it really deserved because of the use of the helicopters to get the Iraqi and the coalition forces there.”
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© 2006 The Associated Press