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Anbar Gives Bush Place to Cite War Progress

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Supporters of President Bush are struggling to persuade Americans that the war in Iraq has changed. You can see a presidential visit today as an effort to get voters and lawmakers to look again. The president is in Iraq today, and he moved outside Baghdad this time, to the western part of the country.

NPR's Don Gonyea has been traveling with the president. And, Don, where are you now?

DON GONYEA: We're at the Al Asad airbase. It's the second-largest airbase in Iraq. It's in Anbar province. We're about halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border.

INSKEEP: And why go there?

GONYEA: This is an area where the White House feels the president can highlight a success story. Anbar province - a year ago, people were talking about Anbar being lost. It was an al-Qaida stronghold. It was definitely one of the bad news stories of the war. But there's been an influx in U.S. troops as part of the surge that's underway. But also prior to that, and what the White House likes to point to, is that al-Qaida-related attacks have been reduced drastically. It wasn't unusual to have a hundred a day; now it's in the single digits, at least according to the most recent statistics they have released.

And they say it's because of the surge, but they say the surge encouraged the local Sunni leaders in this case to recognize that it was worth supporting and working with the United States in the fight against al-Qaida. So that's what the president's going to be talking about, this place as a possible model for the rest of Iraq.

INSKEEP: Even if the story that they want to promote is that things are improving, I do have to ask: If you have the president of the United States traveling with the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Iraq, what is security like?

GONYEA: We are in the middle of this base, which has, we're told, an 18-mile perimeter, and the president is not leaving the base. Now I can tell you when we landed, we did not do that corkscrew-style landing in Air Force One, the 747 we flew in. We also flew in the middle of the afternoon. But we're also told that the Iraqi leaders that the president would be meeting with, Prime Minister Maliki and others and some of Sunni tribal leaders, did not know he was coming in advance. So they kept everything under wraps. But again, he's in the middle of a very large base that's in the middle of the desert. This is not a trip to an urban area at all.

INSKEEP: We're talking with NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea. He's with President Bush in western Iraq making an unannounced visit today.

And, Don, I have to ask you about the timing of this. Of course, back here in Washington, people are waiting for a report from the commanding U.S. general in Iraq. There are Republicans who seem to be defecting from the cause. How much pressure is President Bush under right now to sustain his policy and sustain the war?

GONYEA: He's under a great deal of pressure, and that is absolutely what this trip is about. I mean, on the plane on the way over, National Security Advisor Steven Hadley was asked, is this just a publicity stunt? Is this just the president trying to seize the initiative? And they say, hey, the president's only doing what members of Congress have been doing over the past month - going to Iraq to see first hand. But clearly, it is an effort on the part of the president to change the dialogue a little bit, to highlight what they see as a good news story. And, you know, they're not going to win over the average American, but they are looking at those wavering Republicans.

INSKEEP: NPR White House correspondent Don Gonyea in western Anbar province. Don, thanks very much.

GONYEA: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
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