Key Bush assertions about Iraq in dispute

Reuters

27 September, 2004

By Adam Entous

CRAWFORD, Texas (Reuters) - Many of President George W. Bush's assertions about progress in Iraq -- from police training and reconstruction to preparations for January elections -- are in dispute, according to internal Pentagon documents, lawmakers and key congressional aides on Sunday.

Bush used the visit last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi to make the case that "steady progress" is being made in Iraq to counter warnings by his Democratic presidential rival, Senator John Kerry, that the situation in reality is deteriorating.

Bush touted preparations for national elections in January, saying Iraq's electoral commission is up and running and told Americans on Saturday that "United Nations electoral advisers are on the ground in Iraq."

He said nearly 100,000 "fully trained and equipped" Iraqi soldiers, police officers and other security personnel are already at work, and that would rise to 125,000 by the end of this year.

And he promised more than $9 billion (five bill ion pounds) will be spent on reconstruction contracts in Iraq over the next several months.

But many of these assertions have met with scepticism from key lawmakers, congressional aides and experts, and Pentagon documents, given to lawmakers and obtained by Reuters, paint a more complicated picture.

TROOP, POLICE TRAINING

The documents show that of the nearly 90,000 currently in the police force, only 8,169 have had the full eight-week academy training. Another 46,176 are listed as "untrained," and it will be July 2006 before the administration reaches its new goal of a 135,000-strong, fully trained police force.

Six Army battalions have had "initial training," while 57 National Guard battalions, 896 soldiers in each, are still being recruited or "awaiting equipment." Just eight Guard battalions have reached "initial (operating) capability," and the Pentagon acknowledged the Guard's performance has been "uneven."

Training has yet to begin for the 4,800-man civil intervention force, which will help c ounter a deadly insurgency. And none of the 18,000 border enforcement guards have received any centralised training to date, despite earlier claims they had, according to Democrats on the U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee.

They estimated that 22,700 Iraqi personnel have received enough basic training to make them "minimally effective at their tasks," in contrast to the 100,000 figure cited by Bush.

"Let me tell you exactly what the story is. They're saying they're trying to train them, yet they have not trained," Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on CNN.

The White House defended its figures, and a senior administration official defined "fully trained" as having gone through "initial basic operations training." Gen. John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command that covers Iraq, told NBC's "Meet the Press" that the number of trained Iraqi forces "will continue to grow."

On CBS "Face the Nation," Republican Senator Lindsey G raham of South Carolina said Bush needed to deploy more troops to secure areas of Iraq before the elections.

"We are making progress, but we need to adjust," Graham said.

ELECTIONS, RECONSTRUCTION DISPUTED

The status of election planning in Iraq is also in question. Of the $232 million in Iraqi funds set aside for the Iraqi electoral commission, it has received a mere $7 million, according to House Appropriations Committee staff.

While Bush said the commission has already hired personnel and begun setting election procedures, congressional aides said preparations in other areas were behind schedule.

According to a one-page election planning "time line," registration materials are supposed to be distributed in early October and initial voter lists to go out by the end of October, which is during the holy month of Ramadan.

So far, the United Nations has been reluctant to send staff back into the battle zone. It only has 30 to 35 people now in Baghdad, no more than eight working on the elections.

" The framework for it (free and fair elections) hasn't even been set up. The voter registration lists aren't set. There have to be hundreds of polling places, hundreds of trained monitors and poll watchers. None of that has happened," Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State for President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, told ABC's "This Week."

With the violence expected to intensify in the run-up to the elections, congressional experts were also sceptical $9 billion could be spent on reconstruction projects within several months, as Bush asserted.

A top Republican aide briefed by the administration said, "at best," the $9 billion would be disbursed by late 2005 or early 2006. A top Democratic aide called Bush's projections "laughable."