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Bush finally admits problems in Iraq

President Bush on Dec. 7 unveiled Chapter 2 of his Iraq strategy for victory. It did little to satisfy the critics of U.S. policy there, but at least he did admit that mistakes had been made in efforts to rebuild Iraq and outlined changes that he feels will be more successful than past efforts.

In the second of a projected four speeches on Iraq strategy, the president made some admissions that he had not made in the past. For example, he said, "Corruption is a problem at both the national and local levels of the Iraqi government." He never before had indicated that the Iraqi hierarchy was anything but effective and capable of performing well. The admission of corruption was quite a change for the president.

He also admitted that militia groups had infiltrated security forces, especially the Iraqi police. Again, in previous remarks he had nothing but praise for the Iraqi police.

The president's words on Dec. 7 appeared to reflect a new White House strategy of admitting mistakes, seemingly to improve chances of winning support for his "plan for victory." That, of course, is the reason he is giving four talks on the situation in Iraq.

Bush spent considerable time in his talk citing what he categorized as considerable progress in the rebuilding of Najaf and Mosul, two Iraqi cities that have been the sites of repeated battles and bombings by insurgents. Surprisingly, even in his glowing account of progress in Najaf, Bush admitted that reconstruction in that city has proceeded in "fits and starts since liberation -- it's been uneven." That's quite an admission for this generally optimistic president.

The principal thrust of the president's speech was that the strategy for rebuilding Iraq was now changing to smaller, more visible projects, conceding that past "reconstruction has not always gone as well as we had hoped." The initial focus had been on huge electricity, water and fuel projects, utilizing very large American conglomerates to run these projects. He now admits these efforts did not meet with approval of the citizens of Iraq. He said the Iraqis wanted visible and more immediate proof of efforts to rehabilitate their nation.

The president in his speech indicated a shift in U.S. strategy. It would focus on the U.S. developing the Iraqi economy in a manner that would enable the Iraqis to carry on much of the reconstruction of their country themselves. That is in line with his oft-expressed desire to convince his critics that the Iraqi people are undertaking more of the load on the military and economic fronts.

Conceding that mistakes had been made in U.S. policy must have been difficult for President Bush. In all of his years as president he rarely, if ever, has admitted that his administration's moves and policies have not been on the money. His critics often say that he is too proud or stubborn to admit that mistakes have been made and have been costly in Iraq.

Summing up the president's first two speeches on Iraq, I have to say that Bush, who insists he does not concern himself with public opinion polls, has been getting the message that Americans are definitely less than happy with the U.S. effort in Iraq.

I had hoped that the third talk on Dec. 12 would respond more directly to the oft-expressed demands of most Americans for specifics on Bush's plans for the armed forces in Iraq. Instead we heard more generalities for a hoped-for democracy in that nation and nothing that he has not expressed many times in the past. The fourth and final Iraqi talk is expected to be primarily about the elections in Iraq. I doubt that we will hear any specific responses to the questions being asked by so many Americans about an exit strategy.

Murray B. Light is the former editor of The Buffalo News.

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