"The president heard the call"

Four years later, the White House tries again to explain away "mission accomplished."

Published April 26, 2007 3:34PM (EDT)

At the White House this morning, Dana Perino was asked about the fact that legislation including a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq will land on the president's desk around the fourth anniversary of his "Mission Accomplished" speech on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Perino accused congressional Democrats of withholding "money for the troops in order to play some ridiculous P.R. stunt" -- just before trying, as best she could, to explain away the president's own "ridiculous P.R. stunt" four years ago.

"I would just remind you that I know that our opponents for years have tried -- have misconstrued that speech," Perino said. "I would encourage anybody who's actually going to write about this to go back and read that speech and what it was about and what the USS Abraham Lincoln was doing, how long they had been gone, way past their six-month deployment. I think they were gone nine to 10 months. They were expanded, and their mission was accomplished. The president never said "mission accomplished" in his speech.

That last part is true, but the White House did produce the banner that said "Mission Accomplished." And the president did declare: "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."

A member of the White House press corps sort of, kind of remembered as much and tried to follow up with Perino.

Reporter: Dana, on the "mission accomplished" speech, though, wasn't the phrase something to the effect of "the battle of Baghdad is over"? Clearly that's not true.

Perino: I think it was -- it was "major combat." And I -- it was "major combat operations." And at that point, if you're going back -- I'm not the greater historian on this, since I was at the Council on Environmental Quality during this episode, but Baghdad did fall very quickly. One of the things that we have learned over the years is how strong, first of all, that al-Qaida would be in Iraq, that they would set up this battle as, in their own words, the battle to win. And we did not know that their stoking of sectarian violence would do what it did last year. We had -- at the end of 2005 and early 2006, you had the votes for a government and a vote for a constitution with millions of people in Iraq. And it looked like we were moving towards a period of political reconciliation. And then if you look at the marker of the bombing of the Samarra mosque in February of 2006, it really started this chain reaction, which is -- then in the fall of 2006, the president heard the call of the American people who wanted to see a change in Iraq, and he underwent an extensive review, a comprehensive review which led to the new Baghdad security plan, which is now under way as Gen. Petraeus --

Reporter: Four years ago, [the president] said "major combat operations" were over. All those things happened after he said "major combat operations" were over. Wasn't that a rosy scenario?

Perino: He said that -- he also said that a transition from democracy -- I'm sorry, the transition from dictatorship to democracy would take time. And -- go ahead.

Reporter: Are you really blaming al-Qaida for the sectarian violence in Iraq?

Perino: I think there's multiple factors, and I think that even Gen. Petraeus said yesterday that their whole aim -- if you look at that [Abu Musab al-] Zarqawi to [Ayman al-] Zawahiri letter, their whole aim was to try to stoke sectarian violence. They love chaos; they want to fill the vacuum with their extremist ideology.

Reporter: Are you suggesting that if it wasn't for al-Qaida, there wouldn't be sectarian violence?

Perino: No, I'm not suggesting that. But what we do know, and it has been established by the MNFI forces and the intelligence community, if you just look at the NIE [National Intelligence Estimate] that we released in January of 2007 that that is the consensus opinion of the national security agencies of this country.

Reporter: But they're not the only ones responsible. The sectarian divisions existed before, and were exacerbated by the war.

Perino: I don't think that we're -- we're not arguing that it wasn't.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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