From Joshua Levs
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Editor's note: Iraq's violence and politics are generating a new war of words in the United States in the run-up to critical congressional elections. In this three-part series, CNN looks at the facts, myths, predictions, and differing ideologies shaping the Iraq issue today.
(CNN) -- "The past weekend, U.S. and Iraqi forces engaged militias, or members of an illegal militia, during a mission to capture a high-value target," President Bush said last week. "The reason I bring this up is that we're on the move; we're taking action; we're helping this young democracy succeed."
He added, "Our troops have increased their presence on the streets of Baghdad."
"What I worry about is we're playing a game of whack-a-mole," Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said in August. "We move troops -- it flares up, we move troops there. ... It's very disturbing."
Bush also said that Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had taken three recent steps toward building peace: He won support for a plan to bring together Sunni and Shiite parties; he met with tribal leaders in restive Anbar province to combat "terrorists seeking to control the Sunni heartland;" and he suspended a police unit after learning it was failing to stop sectarian violence.
But CNN journalists in Baghdad found these steps by al-Maliki -- like many others announced over the years -- have shown no impact.
Sunni and Shiite militias continue to turn many Iraqi streets into war zones. Iraqis say they have seen no sign that the militias will be disarmed any time soon.
Has the Iraq war decreased the threat of terrorism?
"Saddam's regime posed a risk that the world could not afford to take. The world is safer because Saddam Hussein is no longer in power," Bush said in a speech on the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
Although Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction -- counteracting the chief U.S. argument for launching the war -- the Bush administration argues Hussein would have developed some had he been left in power.
The administration also points to the cruelty of Saddam's regime, well documented by human rights groups. Hussein has been standing trial on charges of genocide against northern Iraq's Kurdish population in the late 1980s.
But many Democrats argue the way the war has been conducted has damaged U.S. security. A recent intelligence report leaked last month -- and later mostly declassified by the White House to combat criticism -- added fuel to the fire.
The National Intelligence Estimate called the Iraq insurgency a "cause célèbre" contributing to the spread of terrorism. "Activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion," the report said.
But it also said that if the jihadists are perceived eventually to have failed in Iraq, fewer fighters "will be inspired to carry on the fight."
"Unfortunately this report is just confirmation that the Bush administration's stay-the-course approach to the Iraq war has not just made the war more difficult and more deadly for our troops, but has also made the war on terror more dangerous for every American," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois.
President Bush countered, "This argument buys into the enemy's propaganda that the terrorists attack us because we are provoking them." The White House argued there was nothing surprising or new in the idea that terrorists were using the situation in Iraq to recruit.
Making the world 'a more dangerous place'
Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, a key U.S. ally in the international battle against terrorism, told CNN last month the Iraq war "has made the world a more dangerous place."
Bush, in a speech August 31, expressed his unwavering belief that the Iraq war ultimately will curb terrorism, saying victory will "be a powerful triumph in the ideological struggle of the 21st century. From Damascus to Tehran, people will look to a democratic Iraq as inspiration that freedom can succeed in the Middle East, and as evidence that the side of freedom is the winning side."
But while Bush casts the war as the "central front in our fight against terrorism," critics call that an oversimplification at the least.
"Iraq is not about a radical ideology," Sen. Joe Biden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said last week. "This is about a civil war. If every single jihadist in the world were eliminated tomorrow, we still have a major war on our hands in Iraq and no plan to win it."
Sectarian violence has been responsible for many of the killings in Iraq, particularly this year. John Abizaid, commander of the U.S. Central Command in Iraq, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in August, "I believe that the sectarian violence is as, probably, bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."
Bush acknowledges the role of sectarian hatred. "The violence is being caused by a combination of terrorists, elements of former regime criminals and sectarian militias," he said last week.
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