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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Operation Iraqi Gloss-Over

The president cites shaky facts as he makes a case for keeping high levels of troops in Iraq.


President Bush played loose with the facts in his address to the nation Thursday night as he tried to convince the American public that the surge in U.S. troops in Iraq has made the country more stable.

  • He said "36 nations … have troops on the ground in Iraq." In fact, his own State Department puts the number at 25.
  • He said “ordinary life” was returning to Baghdad. Perhaps. In fact, news reports describe the city as starkly segregated with Shiites and Sunnis living in separate neighborhoods, which are walled off from one another with huge concrete barricades.
  • He said Baqubah in Diyala province was "cleared." But the Washington Post quotes a State Department official as saying the security situation there was not stable.
  • He said that “the Iraqi Army is becoming more capable,” which may be true. But the Iraqi defense minister says it’ll be 2012 before the army will be even 60 percent capable of protecting the nation from external threats.


The president argued that the pumped-up level of U.S. forces has been a success and things are improving in Iraq. At times he overreached.

Overstating international support
Bush expressed gratitude to a number of nations for having troops in Iraq – but used a figure much larger than the State Department will support. 
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The president thanked “the 36 nations who have troops on the ground in Iraq.” But the State Department’s “Iraq Weekly Status Report" dated Sept. 12 says the number of countries with forces in Iraq, in addition to the U.S., has dwindled to 25. The figure was 27 a year ago and 29 a year before that. The total number of non-U.S. troops has been cut nearly in half during that time, from 23,000 in September 2005 to 11,732 most recently.

We called the White House to find out the reason the president used a number of 36 nations. According to a National Security Council spokeswoman, Bush arrived at 36 by adding the State Department’s 25, plus the tiny Pacific island nation of Tonga (which is not on State’s list), plus three countries participating in a United Nations training mission, plus another seven that are taking part in a NATO training mission. But the White House sent us a document that clearly lists only 26 countries with "troops on ground in Iraq."

"Ordinary" Life in Baghdad

Things are looking up for residents of Baghdad, Bush told us. 

Bush: Many schools and markets are reopening. Citizens are coming forward with vital intelligence. Sectarian killings are down, and ordinary life is beginning to return. 

That’s painting a very rosy picture, even for Baghdad, where more than half the troop surge has been targeted. If things haven’t improved there, it would be a real mark of failure for Bush’s strategy. But "ordinary" life? According to numerous news reports, Baghdad is increasingly segregated, with Shiite militias forcing Sunni residents out of mixed neighborhoods into all-Sunni enclaves, which aren’t safe either. American troops have put up huge, concrete barricades walling neighborhoods off from each other as a way to reduce the violence.

It’s true that within neighborhoods, some schools and shops are reopening. Of course, it’s anybody’s guess what will happen in this deeply divided city if the American troops leave.

Measuring the Level of Violence
As for Bush’s statement that "sectarian killings are down," the president started touting this claim as early as May. And he has said so repeatedly. In an Aug. 28 speech to the American Legion National Convention, Bush said, “Sectarian violence has sharply decreased in Baghdad.”

But other reports contradict this claim or call it into question. The Washington Post has reported the monthly number of unidentified bodies found on Baghdad streets, according to Iraqi Health Ministry statistics. “Unidentified corpses, which are often found bearing signs of torture, are generally an indicator of sectarian violence,” the Post reported in an Aug. 5 story. The number of unidentified bodies found in July, while lower than the number found in June, was still 50 percent higher than the 272 bodies found in March, the first month after the troop increase, the paper said.

The bottom line is that it’s difficult to measure sectarian violence, and there’s no way to thoroughly vet the White House or Pentagon numbers. The Post has also quoted a “senior intelligence official” who questioned the methodology of the sectarian death count, saying that, for instance, Iraqis shot in the back of the head count as sectarian victims, but not Iraqis shot in the front of the head. Those are considered victims of “crime.” Iraq Body Count compiled figures that show some lessening of violence against civilians, but the group adds that "the first six months of 2007 was still the most deadly first six months for civilians of any year since the invasion."

Other factors that affect the level of sectarian violence include the increased division of Baghdad into purely Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods and a substantial increase in the number of Iraqis fleeing their homes.

Giving the All Clear
The president also painted a rosy picture of the security situation in Baqubah, capital of Diyala province.

Bush: “One year ago, much of Diyala province was a sanctuary for al Qaeda and other extremist groups, and its capital of Baqubah was emerging as an al Qaeda stronghold. Today Baqubah is cleared.”

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler fact-checked this item in today’s paper, writing: “But in a meeting with reporters on Aug. 27, the head of the State Department team in Diyala said the security situation was not stable, hampering access to food and energy, though he acknowledged that commerce was returning to Baqubah.” Kessler quoted John Melvin Jones has having said, "It’s going to take a while before the security situation gets stable enough so that you can have a lot of these other agencies [such as USAID] involved." That doesn’t sound like Baqubah has been “cleared” to us.

Troop Levels in Context

The president backed Gen. David Petraeus’ recommendations for withdrawing some of the troops from Iraq, saying that 2,200 Marines would leave this month as scheduled, an Army brigade would come home by Christmas and that "by July we will be able to reduce our troop levels in Iraq from 20 combat brigades to 15." It’s unclear how many troops that includes. Press estimates put it at between 21,000 and 30,000 military personnel. 

But this is hardly news. Some drawdown was scheduled to occur anyway, unless commanders decided otherwise. Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, asked Gen. Petraeus about this during the commander’s testimony on Capitol Hill this week.

Reed: …unless tours were extended, 30,000 troops are coming out of there beginning in April next year regardless of the situation on the ground.

Reed: My sense is that the Reserve and National Guard forces are not available to —

Petraeus: I think that’s the case, but again, I don’t know because I have not asked.

Petraeus: Again, certainly the active brigade combat teams were going to come out of there. Again, I’m not aware of what is available in terms of battalions, brigades or what have you.

Lowering Expectations

The president modified his own measurements for political progress, citing Iraqi actions in his speech last night that he didn’t think were good enough a month ago.

Bush: Yet Iraq’s national leaders are getting some things done. For example, they have passed a budget. They are sharing oil revenues with the provinces. They are allowing former Ba’athists to rejoin Iraq’s military or receive government pensions.

But Bush very recently used a different standard for measuring progress. In his Aug. 18 radio speech, he cited the passage of laws governing the sharing of oil revenues among Iraq’s provinces and de-Baathification as steps the Iraqi government needed to take in order to show progress. They are both among the benchmarks the U.S. set to measure success.

Bush (radio address, Aug. 18): Unfortunately, political progress at the national level has not matched the pace of progress at the local level. The Iraqi government in Baghdad has many important measures left to address, such as reforming the de-Baathification laws, organizing provincial elections, and passing a law to formalize the sharing of oil revenues.

Bush noted in that address that “despite the lack of oil revenue law on the books, oil revenue sharing is taking place.” He made no mention of the need for a law in his speech last night. And progress on that front is deteriorating: This week, the New York Times and United Press International reported that acceptance of the legislation appeared to be crumbling.

Forward March?
Bush and others have always said that Iraqi security forces must get up to speed so coalition forces can hand things over to them. There has been progress. But Bush failed to note just how far these forces still have to go.

Bush: According to General Petraeus and a panel chaired by retired General Jim Jones, the Iraqi army is becoming more capable, although there is still a great deal of work to be done to improve the national police.

The Independent Commission on the Security of Iraq, led by retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, did say in its report dated Sept. 6 that the Iraqi Army is improving. But the Iraqi Security Forces, of which the Army is a major part, “will not be able to progress enough in the near term to secure Iraqi borders against conventional military and external threats,” the report said. And further:

Commission Report: The Iraqi Minister of Defense seemed to recognize both the progress the Iraqi Army has made and the remaining challenges when he predicted to Commissioners that the Army would be 60 percent capable of independently protecting Iraq from external threats by 2012 and entirely independent in this regard by 2018.

That’s five and 11 years away. And as for the police:

Commission Report: Despite coalition efforts to retrain the national police and emphasize human rights and the rule of law, it is not clear that this element of the Iraqi security forces, in its current form, can contribute to Iraqi security and stability in a meaningful way.

The police in many areas of the country, according to the report, won’t leave their stations and have been infiltrated by insurgents and militias. It’s so bad, in fact, that the panel recommended disbanding the national police force.

As yet another indication of the continuing struggle in Iraq, the president cited success in Anbar province – “Anbar province is a good example of how our strategy is working” – but also mentioned the killing early Thursday of a prominent sheikh in that province who led an alliance of Sunnis fighting against al Qaeda.

– by Viveca Novak and Lori Robertson

Correction Sept. 17: We originally referred to Tonga as an "African nation," confusing it with Togo. In fact, Tonga is a nation of islands in the Pacific, with a population estimated as just under 117,000.


United States Department of State, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. “Iraq Weekly Status Report.” 12 Sept. 2007.

United Stated Congress. Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Petraeus-Crocker Report on Progress in Iraq. Transcript. 11 Sept. 2007.

“Report: Iraq oil-sharing law in shambles.” United Press International. 13 Sept. 2007.

United States. The White House. “Setting the Record Straight: Iraq Is The Central Front of Al Qaeda’s Global Campaign.” 3 May 2007.

International Organization for Migration. “2007 Iraq Displacement Mid-Year Review.”

Glanz, James and Farrell, Stephen. “More Iraqis Said to Flee Since Troop Rise.” The New York Times. 24 Aug. 2007.

Robinson, Linda. "A Year of Living Dangerously," U.S. News & World Report, 17 Sept. 2007.

Fadel, Leila. "Little reason for optimism in Iraq," McClatchy Newspapers, 7 Sept. 2007.

Myers, Steven Lee and Hulse, Carl. "Success Allows Gradual Troop Cuts, Bush Says." The New York Times. 14 Sept. 2007.

Baker, Peter and DeYoung, Karen. "Bush Tells Nation He Will Begin to Roll Back ‘Surge’" The Washington Post. 14 Sept. 2007.