National Public Radio (NPR), the Associated Press, and ABC reported uncritically on the purported improvement of Iraqi forces, as touted by President Bush in a speech. But these outlets failed to note that the number of Iraqi battalions capable of operating independently has dropped from three in June 2005 to none eight months later. Moreover, contrary to NPR's assertion, Bush ignored this statistic in his speech and instead focused on other, more favorable indicators of improved troop readiness.
On the March 13 broadcast of National Public Radio's (NPR) Talk of the Nation, White House correspondent David Greene falsely reported that President Bush, in a speech that day on Iraq, had asserted that the number of Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) battalions able to operate independently of the United States-led coalition had increased as of late. In fact, according to the Pentagon, the number of Iraqi battalions capable of operating independently has dropped from three in June 2005 to none eight months later. Moreover, contrary to NPR's assertion, Bush's speech did not address the ability of ISF forces to operate independently and instead focused on other, more favorable indicators of improved troop readiness.
Further, both the Associated Press and ABC's World News Tonight, in their coverage of the speech, repeated Bush's positive assessment of the training of the Iraqi forces but failed to note that the number of independent battalions has diminished over the past year.
In June 2005, senior U.S. commanders disclosed that, of the 107 Iraqi battalions formed at the time, three had achieved "Level 1" status, indicating their capability to plan and conduct independent operations. On September 29, 2005, however, Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the top U.S. commander in Iraq, informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that this number had dropped to one battalion. More recently, Pentagon officials stated on February 24 that the number of Level 1 battalions had fallen to zero.
In a March 13 speech, Bush cited increases in the total number of Iraqi battalions as well as the number able to lead operations alongside U.S. forces. But he ignored entirely the drop in those units able to operate independently:
BUSH: When I reported on the progress of the Iraqi security forces last year, I said that there were over 120 Iraqi and police combat battalions [sic] in the fight against the enemy -- and 40 of those were taking the lead in the fight. Today the number of battalions in the fight has increased to more than 130 -- with more than 60 taking the lead. As more Iraqi battalions come on line, these Iraqi forces are assuming responsibility for more territory. Today, Iraqi units have primary responsibility for more than 30,000 square miles of Iraq -- an increase of roughly 20,000 square miles since the beginning of the year. And Iraqi forces are now conducting more independent operations throughout the country than do coalition forces.
Discussing the speech with Talk of the Nation host Michel Martin, Greene noted the doubts surrounding Iraqi troop readiness, but nonetheless falsely reported that Bush had cited an increase in the number of Iraqi battalions "acting independently without the help of U.S. coalition forces." By doing so, Greene suggested that the number of independent Iraqi units had indeed increased, when in fact they have fallen to zero.
From the March 13 broadcast of NPR's Talk of the Nation:
MARTIN: This is Talk of the Nation on NPR News. And I'm joined by David Greene, NPR's White House correspondent. What evidence does the White House have that the Iraqi forces are improving?
GREENE: It's a good question. The president often turns to numbers that he chooses and his staff chooses and suggests that the number of Iraqi battalions, the number of Iraqi forces, who are acting independently without the help of U.S. coalition forces, is going up. He presented some numbers today which he said were a bit farther up than in December. It's a very hard thing to measure, and when Pentagon officials have been grilled on Capitol Hill about what these numbers really mean, there's certainly some doubts. But the president likes to say that as we see the number of battalions who are acting on their own go up, it shows that slowly but surely there's progress being made.
In a similar vein, both the Associated Press and ABC repeated the positive statistics cited by Bush in the speech but failed to contrast them with the decrease in Iraqi battalions with Level 1 capability.
On the February 13 edition of World News Tonight, ABC News White House correspondent Martha Raddatz reported Bush's claim that those units "taking the lead in combat" had risen in recent months:
RADDATZ: The president also said the number of Iraqi police and army battalions taking the lead in combat has gone from 40 to 60 in three months. That is an improvement but still represents less than half of the Iraqi battalions now operating.
In her March 14 article on the speech, AP staff writer Nedra Pickler uncritically reported the various statistics cited by Bush:
The president, speaking to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies at George Washington University, said the Iraqi military is taking on more responsibility. He said it was Iraqis, not coalition forces, who restored order after the attack in Samarra.
Bush said Iraqi forces have taken primary responsibility for more than 30,000 of the country's 170,000 square miles. That's far higher than the Pentagon's Feb. 24 report to Congress, which said Iraqi forces "have assumed ownership of'' slightly more than 12,000 square miles of Iraq. Bush's goal is to have Iraqis in control of most of Iraq by the end of the year.
More than 130 Iraqi battalions are fighting the enemy, Bush said, with more than 60 taking the lead. That's up from 120 battalions and 40 in the lead last year.
Iraqi forces have planned, conducted and led more than 200 independent operations in the past two weeks, more than those being conducted by coalition forces, Bush said.
By contrast, a March 14 article by Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker challenged Bush's assessment of Iraqi troop readiness by noting that "no Iraqi unit is currently capable of operating without U.S. assistance":
In the speech, Bush said Iraqi units today have "primary responsibility" over 30,000 square miles of Iraqi territory, an increase of 20,000 square miles since the beginning of the year. As a country of nearly 169,000 square miles, Iraqi forces would need to control about 85,000 square miles to fulfill Bush's target.
What constitutes control, however, depends on the definition, since no Iraqi unit is currently rated capable of operating without U.S. assistance. And vast swaths of Iraq have never been contested by insurgents, meaning they could ultimately be turned over to local forces without directly affecting the conflict.
Bush said 130 Iraqi battalions are participating in the battle with radical guerrillas, with 60 units taking the lead, an increase from 120 battalions and 40 in the lead when he last delivered major speeches on Iraq at the end of 2005. But Democrats pointed out that a Pentagon report last month showed that the number of Iraqi units rated "Level 1," or fully independent of U.S. help, has fallen from one to zero.