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Last Updated: Monday, 3 September 2007, 20:30 GMT 21:30 UK
Bush visit seeks to bolster Iraq will
By Richard Lister
BBC News, Washington

"There are some who might try to deride this trip as a photo opportunity," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino of President George W Bush Bush's visit to Iraq, before adding: "We wholeheartedly disagree."

General David Petraeus greets President George W Bush in Iraq
Mr Bush may hope his visit to Iraq sends a message it is getting safer

That said, there are no presidential visits that are not thoroughly assessed for their media impact beforehand, and this trip was no different.

Anbar province was Saddam Hussein's power base, with a 95% Sunni population.

After the invasion, it became the most dangerous place for US forces outside Baghdad.

Having pictures of the commander-in-chief strolling around an American base there will send a valuable message back home - it is not as dangerous as it was.

So what's the evidence for this? Well, in a largely gloomy National Intelligence Estimate released last month, there were some signs of positive change.

In Anbar province the report noted "expanded Sunni opposition" to extremist groups associated with al-Qaeda, adding that they had eroded the "operational presence and capabilities" of what the administration calls "al-Qaeda in Iraq".

Translation: some Sunni militias are now focused more on driving out al-Qaeda than driving out American troops.

'Shaky grip'

The White House has seized that analysis as proof that its strategy is working.

map

But the Intelligence Estimate also said unless Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is Shia, does more to support these Sunni efforts and bring the tribal leaders into his coalition, their growing strength could undermine his shaky grip on power still further.

So this was another reason for Mr Bush's Iraq trip.

He summoned the prime minister to Anbar province, to impress upon him the need to engage with those increasingly powerful Sunnis whom Shia officials regard with suspicion.

Mr Bush knows the biggest criticism he faces at the moment is that, while there is some evidence of progress on security, the political process in Iraq is almost in reverse.

The National Intelligence Estimate concluded the Maliki government was likely to become even more precarious over the next year or so.

Petraeus report

A leak of another official report to the US Congress suggests that Mr Maliki's government has failed to meet the overwhelming majority of the benchmarks set out for him, such as calling provincial elections and passing legislation to distribute oil revenue.

President George W Bush attends a briefing in Iraq
The White House is signalling no major changes in its Iraq strategy

These points are likely to be emphasised next week when the commander of US operations in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and the US ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, report on the situation on the ground.

The report is expected to be, at best, mixed.

While violence has been curbed in Baghdad and Anbar province, other regions have seen some of the worst bloodshed since the invasion.

And it will be very hard for that report to point to significant advances by the Maliki government, which this troop surge was supposed to enable.

But the White House is signalling that there will be no major changes in its policy in response to the Petraeus report, and the president is trying to get people used to that idea ahead of time.

With his visit to Anbar province and two forceful speeches about his Iraq policy last month, Mr Bush is trying to gather momentum for the view that some security progress is being made and that political progress will follow in time.

British question

Coincidentally, his stopover in the 43C heat of Anbar province came on the heels of the British pull-out from their palace base in Basra.

That re-deployment has attracted some criticism in the US - albeit unofficially.

An unnamed US intelligence official was quoted as saying Britain had failed to stabilise Basra; other commentators with close ties to the US military have expressed their fear that a mess is being created which American troops may have to clean up.

Such criticism was described as "misplaced" by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Defence Secretary Des Browne in an unusual Washington Post editorial, in which they said the transfer of control to Iraqis in other provinces had already proved successful.

While there may be an impression in some quarters that the British are cutting their losses while American troops are staying the course, it is likely Mr Bush will use this latest British re-deployment as more evidence of security progress.

You could call that the "glass half-full" strategy.

It is one which Mr Bush is pursuing vigorously as the White House braces for further criticism of its Iraq policy, which is now costing the US roughly $3bn a week.

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