By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 29, 2007; A18
The most important form of political compromise in Iraq is not among top Iraqi politicians in Baghdad, but at the local level, President Bush asserted yesterday, in a departure from past rhetoric on Iraqi politics.
"To evaluate how life is improving for the Iraqis, we cannot look at the country only from the top down, we need to go beyond the Green Zone and look at Iraq from the bottom up," he said in a speech at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "This is where political reconciliation matters most, because it is where ordinary Iraqis are deciding whether to support new Iraq."
Until now, Bush and members of his administration have almost always described political agreement in Iraq as an effort to be led by members of Iraq's national government. In his State of the Union address in January, the president emphasized that "Iraq's leaders have committed themselves to a series of benchmarks to achieve reconciliation." And in a White House ceremony in March, Bush told one of those Iraqis -- Vice President Adel Abdul Mahdi -- that "the main reason why I've reinforced our troops in Iraq is to give leaders such as yourself the opportunity to do the hard work of reconciliation."
But since January, when the president unveiled his new security strategy for Baghdad -- with the stated goal of creating breathing space that would lead to a new political opening in Iraq -- there have been few signs of major progress toward reconciliation among Iraq's top leaders.
At the same time, U.S. officials have taken encouragement in the apparent swing that several tribal leaders in Iraq's Anbar province have taken against al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents. As Bush noted in his speech, that surprising shift has come after U.S. officials last year began to believe that conditions in Anbar -- which is overwhelmingly Sunni -- were hopeless. In August 2006, the senior Marine Corps intelligence officer in the province filed a classified assessment, which concluded that U.S. forces were not able to defeat the insurgency there.
Now, with many sheikhs in Anbar apparently supporting the U.S. position or at least ceasing to oppose it, "we're hoping to replicate the success we've had in Anbar in other parts of Iraq, especially in areas in and around Baghdad," Bush said.
In his remarks, Bush continued to describe political reconciliation in Iraq as a goal of U.S. policy, in contrast to some top U.S. military officials in Iraq who have begun to stop advocating "reconciliation" and now favor "accommodation" -- which they consider a less ambitious, shorter-term objective.
"I think there's probably an interim step toward reconciliation that might better be described as accommodation," Army Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, until recently the commander of U.S. training and advising efforts, told reporters earlier this month. "And what I mean by that is that they have to find ways to become dependent on each other."
In another sign of a potential policy shift, Bush also said in his speech that one of the encouraging signs in Baghdad is that "citizens are forming neighborhood watch groups." It is not clear what the difference is between those groups and armed militias, which U.S. officials have said in the past must be disbanded or incorporated into Iraqi security forces.
The president had previously emphasized the role of troops and law enforcement in protecting citizens. "When Iraqi civilians see a large presence of professional soldiers and police patrolling their streets, they grow in confidence and trust," Bush said in a speech in Michigan in April. "They become less likely to turn to militias for protection."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.