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As Violence Peaks and Dips, Debate Over ‘Surge’ Persists

President Bush said Tuesday he believes last year's surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq -- which has been attributed with helping reduce the violence in some parts of Baghdad -- is working. Military policy experts debate the effectiveness of the surge strategy.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And now the surge. We start with some background narrated by NewsHour correspondent Kwame Holman.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The news out of Iraq in recent days has been grim. Eight U.S. soldiers killed in bombings yesterday in Baghdad and Diyala province. A Sunni Arab tribal sheik murdered yesterday by a female suicide bomber. More than 50 Iraqis massacred in a Baghdad market attack last week. And, today, at least 16 Iraqis died in this roadside bombing targeting a bus in southern Iraq.

    While violence has spiked in recent days, the number of deadly incidents actually has declined over the last nine months. According to the Associated Press, it's down 60 percent.

    Monthly numbers for Iraqi deaths vary, but most reports put the number killed at about half of what it was a year ago. And U.S. troop deaths have dropped from a one-month high of 300 in April 2007 to 110 in February.

    The Bush administration and top U.S. generals in Iraq attribute the decline to the U.S. troop build-up that began last summer, known as the surge.

    It added 30,000 more U.S. soldiers and Marines, bringing the total U.S. force to 168,000, the highest since the 2003 invasion. The military since has trimmed that number by about 10,000.

    The surge coincided with the decision of some Sunni leaders to ally, at least temporarily, with U.S. forces in western Iraq and around Baghdad and a cease-fire called by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. As a result, many insurgents have moved out of Baghdad and into northern provinces.

    President Bush frequently has praised the surge and its results. Today, he spoke in Nashville.

    GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Since the surge began, sectarian killings are down, al-Qaida has been driven from many strongholds it once held. I strongly believe the surge is working, and so do the Iraqis.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The surge and the question of future U.S. troop levels in Iraq also is part of the rhetoric of the presidential campaign. John McCain has championed the surge from the start.

    SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Frankly, the decision making on the surge, the decision that I felt was the most — the only way we could salvage a debacle in Iraq and a severe defeat that would have had profound consequences for our nation's security.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    But on the Democratic side, candidates Clinton and Obama have questioned whether the surge has achieved its political goal of Shia-Sunni reconciliation in Iraq. Both stress the desire to lower troop levels promptly if elected president.

    SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: The purpose behind the surge was to create the space and time for political reconciliation for the Iraqi government, but there has not been a willingness on the part of the Iraqi government to do what the surge was intended to do: to push them to begin to make the tough decisions.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: We have essentially gone full-circle. We had intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional government back in 2006. We saw a huge spike in violence to horrific levels. The surge comes in. And now we're back to where we were in 2006, with intolerable levels of violence and a dysfunctional Iraqi government.

  • KWAME HOLMAN:

    The current commander-in-chief is expected to decide by summer whether to maintain a force of 140,000 or possibly make even deeper cuts.

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