In a videoconference linking him by satellite to a group of soldiers in Iraq, President Bush sought and won their assurances on Thursday that Iraqi forces are up to the job of helping American troops provide security for the voting there this weekend.
The event, stage-managed for television, came across as carefully scripted and a bit awkward, despite attempts to prepare the soldiers for what they would be asked and to give them time to think through their answers, New York Times reports.
"How are they doing?" Mr. Bush asked one of the officers about the Iraqi security forces. "I mean, give us an assessment. One of the things, Captain, that people in America want to know is, one, do the Iraqis want to fight, and are they capable of fighting?"
Capt. Steven Pratt answered that "the Iraqi Army and police services, along with coalition support, have conducted many and multiple exercises and rehearsals." He called their cooperation and communication "impressive."
Reporters were allowed to observe the Washington side of the exchange in an office building on the White House grounds. There, Allison Barber, an aide to the secretary of defense, discussed the questions in advance with the group of 10 Americans and 1 Iraqi soldier assembled in Tikrit, as they decided who would answer which question.
"The president is looking forward to having just a conversation with you," she told them, according to The Associated Press. She described the subjects he would raise and gave instructions, including a request that water bottles be removed from the picture.
Later, at the White House briefing, Scott McClellan, the press secretary, deflected questions about the choreography, saying reporters who asked about that were getting caught up in "side issues."
"I think what the American people heard was some very important information from our men and women in uniform," he said.