- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 2, 2004

President Bush yesterday said he had nothing to do with the selection of Iraq’s interim government and insisted that the new leaders are not puppets of the U.S. government, hours after congratulating some of them in personal telephone conversations.

“I had no role in picking — zero,” Mr. Bush said in the Rose Garden. “It’s going to be up to the leaders to prove their worth to the Iraqi citizens. In other words, the leaders are going to have to show the Iraqis that they’re independent.”

Mr. Bush also said although Iraq’s fledgling government might occasionally tell U.S. military to “get out of the way” after the June 30 transfer of sovereignty, it will have no authority to prevent the troops from defending themselves.

“The American people need to be assured that if our troops are in harm’s way, they will be able to defend themselves without having to check with anybody else — other than their commander,” he said.

Earlier yesterday, Mr. Bush called Iraq’s new prime minister, Iyad Allawi, and president, Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer, to offer congratulations and cooperation.

“The naming of the new interim government brings us one step closer to realizing the dream of millions of Iraqis: a fully sovereign nation with a representative government that protects their rights and serves their needs,” he said.

When reminded that Mr. Allawi had blamed the United States for failing to adequately plan for the challenges of postwar Iraq, Mr. Bush pointed out that U.S. troops had secured oil fields that are helping to pay for Iraq’s reconstruction.

“I fully understand a leader willing to speak their mind,” the president said.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice lauded the naming of the new government, which includes six women.

“I can tell you firmly and without any contradiction, this is a terrific list, a really good government, and we are very pleased with the names that have emerged,” she said at the White House.

Miss Rice denied press reports that the administration favored former Iraqi foreign minister Adnan Pachachi over Mr. al-Yawer for the largely symbolic post of interim Iraqi president. Mr. Pachachi, 81, took himself out of contention for “personal reasons.”

“The United States did not have a single candidate for president,” she said. “The idea that we had single candidates is simply wrong.”

Mr. Bush said he has “been speaking with a variety of world leaders” on the wording of a draft U.N. Security Council resolution that would endorse the transfer of sovereignty.

“One of the interesting things I’ve heard from other leaders: ‘Are you really going to pass full sovereignty?’” the president said.”And the answer is: ‘Yes, we’re going to pass full sovereignty.’

“We’re willing to work with them to achieve language we can live with but, more importantly, language that the Iraqi government can live with,” he added.

The president also conferred with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who deferred to Iraq on wording of the new resolution.

“He wants to hear from the new Iraqi government, and I don’t blame him,” the president said. “But you know how the United Nations is.

“Sometimes it can move slowly, and sometimes it can move quickly,” he added. “And the quicker the better as far as I’m concerned, because it sends a message to the new Iraqi government: The world stands with you.”

Mr. Bush made it clear that U.S. forces eventually would leave Iraq, but only after helping the new government establish security and stabilization.

“There is a deep desire by the Iraqis — don’t get me wrong — to run their own affairs and to be in a position where they can handle their own security measures,” he said.

“And I think they will be in that position,” he added. “But I know that they’re not going to ask us to depart until they’re comfortable in that position.”

Mr. Bush also predicted a rise in violence as the June 30 turnover draws near, but vowed that it would not scare the United States out of Iraq.

The president’s remarks about the safety of U.S. troops came four days after British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Iraq’s new government would have veto authority over the U.S.-led military coalition.

Although Mr. Bush opposes granting veto authority to Iraq, he expressed confidence that “we can bridge any gap” between the two sides.

“I can assure the Iraqi citizens, as well as our friends in Europe, that we have done these kind of security arrangements before,” he said.

“Witness Afghanistan. There’s a sovereign government in Afghanistan,” he added. “There are U.S. troops and coalition troops there, and they’re working very well together.”

After June 30, U.S. troops hope to act as reinforcements for Iraqi security forces, who will have primary responsibility for maintaining order. And just as Iraq will have no veto authority over U.S. military operations, the U.S. will have no veto authority over Iraqi forces.

“The Iraqi army will report up to a chain of command of Iraqis, not coalition’s or Americans,” Mr. Bush said.”And I think that’s going to be an important part of the spirit and the capabilities of an Iraqi army.”

The president, who visited Baghdad on Thanksgiving, also expressed an interest in returning to Iraq once the security improves. He said he also wants to visit Afghanistan, although there are no plans for either trip.

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