President Bush often jokingly tells mayors to fix the potholes. The message from a longtime pol: Keep constituents happy where it counts. On Tuesday it was Mr. Bush's turn, as the president of the United States focused an hour of his time on trash pickup and other pedestrian concerns. In Iraq.
The White House allowed one reporter, from The Associated Press, to sit in on a briefing for Mr. Bush by leaders of provincial reconstruction teams in Iraq. What Mr. Bush likes to call the "political surge" that goes along with the military surge he ordered a year ago, these teams are integrated units of U.S. civilian, military and diplomatic workers deployed across the country as mentors to help local Iraqis govern, boost their economies and restart basic services still missing in much of Iraq.
The situations the leaders reported ranged from the dire to the celebratory.
John Jones, the provisional reconstruction team leader in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, gaped in awe at the report from another team leader, Angus Simmons. Simmons had talked about all the ways his team was helping boost tourism in the southern province of Najaf, home to holy sites, including assisting the Iraqis' dream of a new airport. It was a situation unimaginable to Jones in his area, which has become a messy new stronghold for extremists who have been pushed out of Anbar province by the increased U.S. troop presence there.
"We're still struggling," Jones said. "The key thing for us is we're making small steps." The biggest victory Jones reported was getting access from the provincial governor, a Shiite Muslim in a predominantly Sunni area.
The hourlong session involved three PRT leaders talking via secure videoconference from Iraq and three others ("on vacation" back in the States) in the Roosevelt Room. Those watching the giant screen with them and Mr. Bush included Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush talked little, asking a few questions, making a couple of jokes and giving a brief pep talk.
Mr. Bush said in the Rose Garden afterward that the meeting, along with separate teleconferences Tuesday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, gave him confidence that recent security gains are producing political successes, and will do so even more.
The president said that last year, particularly at the end, "has become incredibly successful beyond anybody's expectations."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., took issue. "It is a failure of leadership when our president calls 2007 incredibly successful beyond anybody's expectations when the Iraqi government has done so little to achieve stability and it has been the most lethal year yet for American troops," they said in a statement.
In other developments:
Service Association, the union that represents U.S. diplomats.
Petraeus and Crocker are due to give Congress a new update on the war in March. Mr. Bush plans to see them in person this weekend on a stop in Kuwait during his Mideast trip that begins Wednesday in Israel. After their report last September, Mr. Bush announced he would withdraw some troops from Iraq by July - essentially the 30,000 sent as part of the surge - but still keep the U.S. level there at about 130,000. The next report will be watched closely for whether further cuts will be made after July.
With al-Maliki's government achieving little progress on legislative reforms seen as key to tamping down sectarian violence, Mr. Bush and his team now are counting more on spurring changes in the provinces that would then force the central government to act. The provisional reconstruction teams are at the center of those goals.
Amid successes, the teams have been troubled by interagency disputes over funding, staffing and administrative support.
The team leaders Mr. Bush heard from were mostly from areas of Iraq that have seen improvements since last year's troop buildup took full effect. With 24 PRTs now operating, up from 10 a year ago, Lt. Gen. Doug Lute, the president's White House point man on Iraq and Afghanistan, said those chosen to brief on Tuesday were meant to represent both the geographical diversity and the range of challenges in Iraq.
Mr. Bush did not hear all rosy news.
Crocker, introducing the leaders, told the Commander in Chief that the desire of the PRTs in southern provinces to move from one regional location to small, secure forward bases closer to their efforts could be costly. "I can't resist the opportunity to put that on the table," Crocker said.
Others talked about violence remaining an overarching problem. John Bennett, leader of a Baghdad PRT embedded with the 101st Airborne Division, said a key informant was assassinated earlier Tuesday, most likely by al Qaeda in Iraq. "We are getting more information, but it does come at a cost," he said.
And there were lots of complaints that efforts are being hampered by the government in Baghdad - "the prime minister's office primarily," Bennett said.
This mirrors a recent report from the Pentagon's special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, Stuart W. Bowen Jr. He said Iraq's complex sectarian, political and ethnic conflicts and the dicey security situation continue to hinder progress.
Still, Mr. Bush had reasons for hope.
In Kirkuk, a predominantly Kurdish city in the north, the team brokered an end to a yearlong political boycott by Sunni Arabs in a deal that reserves government posts for Arabs. "It was a major way forward," team leader Howard Keegan said.
Col. David Paschal, commander of the 1st Brigade Combat Team from the 10th Mountain Division, which works in concert with Keegan, reported that Iraqi policemen now wear their uniforms to work, no longer so scared that they wait to put them on until they get there.
In Ramadi, west of Baghdad in Anbar province, a road once known as "the racetrack" for what drivers felt they had to do to emerge safely, now is bustling with Internet cafes and restaurants, team leader Kris Haegerstrom said.
And Haegerstrom reported that garbage collection in Ramadi is back up to 80 percent of prewar.
"Even better than that," she said, "the cell phone number of the guy who's supposed to pick up garbage in your neighborhood is posted in your neighborhood."