Sorting Through Campaign Claims on Iraq

Facts are often casualties in politics and war — and the politics of war — as seen in the debate over Iraq.

During a Cincinnati campaign stop earlier this month, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said of the war: "I call this course a catastrophic choice that has cost us $200 billion because we went it alone."

Has the United States spent that much?

"We have not spent $200 billion on Iraq. We have spent probably somewhere around $120 [billion] or $130 billion," said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank.

"He adds money that hasn't been spent yet and hasn't been asked for yet," said Brooks Jackson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center's

Asked by Jackson to provide backup for the $200 billion claim for a item last week, the Kerry campaign originally included a bill that would have spent money on Afghanistan and on defense programs in the United States. But since that time the campaign has provided new figures that exclude such programs, though the campaign still relies on future dollars not allocated or even requested to reach its figure.

Kerry also attacks the Bush administration over what he says is the insufficient number of fully trained Iraqi security forces.

On a recent appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman, the Massachusetts senator offered this claim: "Secretary [of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld said not so long ago that there were 210,000 Iraqi security forces that were ready to go. Well, before Congress, he revised that figure just a few days ago saying, 'No, I was wrong. There are 95,000.' In fact, there are only 5,000."

According to the Pentagon, there are 6,316 soldiers in the Iraqi army, but they are just one part of the Iraqi security forces, which total around 95,000 and include 34,553 police, 36,397 National Guardsmen, 15,688 Border Patrol agents, 282 Coastal Defense personnel, 143 Air Force members and others.

A source in the Kerry campaign said Kerry didn't mean to leave out the word "soldiers" in his Letterman appearance.

When asked where he got information that there were only 5,000 Iraqi soldiers — as opposed to 6,316 — the campaign attributed the claim to remarks Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., made in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. Biden's office did not return numerous calls for comment.

Bush Overstates Iraq Army's Abilities

But if Kerry understates the Iraqi forces' numbers, Bush may be overstating their abilities. He tends to stick to generalities, but true impressions are important too.

"Iraq now has a free army, which is fighting for its freedom," Bush said at a Victory 2004 rally last week.

That's true, but there are serious questions about its preparedness.

"We are grossly exaggerating their capabilities by reporting on numbers, by reporting on people who have minimal training that is largely useless, by not stating the level of equipment and facilities they have, which often is a small fraction of what they really need, and by ignoring the fact that much of our effort to date has produced forces that either won't fight or even won't stay in their headquarters and buildings," said ABC News military analyst Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Today in Pennsylvania, Bush also downplayed the size of the Iraqi insurgency.

"It's hard helping a country from tyranny to elections to peace when there are a handful of people willing to kill," he told a crowd in King of Prussia.

But military officials say that "handful" could amount to as many as 20,000 people.

"It seems to me in the 20-to-30,000 range with more recruits coming into the system every day is a more reasonable estimation," said William Nash, a retired major general and now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But Bush also misstates facts in making his case. Now that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, he has cited other examples to vilify Saddam Hussein.

"If people say where are [Saddam's] ties to terror, remind them about Abu Nidal, the killer of Leon Klinghoffer," Bush said during the King of Prussia rally.

That is not true. Klinghoffer, an elderly, wheelchair-bound American, was killed during the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. The hijacking was led by Abu Abbas of the Palestine Liberation Front, not Abu Nidal, though Bush has made this claim at least 17 times. Both men were considered terrorists and were given safe harbor by Saddam.

The war in Iraq will continue well past Election Day. No doubt, misrepresentations about them will continue as well.