President Bush said yesterday that “Islamic fascists” must know he will not bow to political pressure to pull out of Iraq, even as the Senate begins debate on setting a timetable.
“Don’t bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it’s not going to happen,” Mr. Bush told reporters at a morning press conference in the White House Rose Garden, seven hours after landing from his surprise trip to Iraq.
Mr. Bush backed away from saying the tide has turned in Iraq, instead telling reporters that he senses “something different happening in Iraq” and that the new government is making steady progress. He also announced that he will send Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman to Iraq to help the nation with energy production and Deputy Treasury Secretary Robert M. Kimmitt to the United Nations and then to Baghdad to work on boosting support for the new government.
Of $13 billion pledged to help Iraq, Mr. Bush said that just $3 billion has been paid and that his administration will encourage other nations to “pay up.”
The president admitted that he was “fighting off fatigue” as he answered questions for an hour and even appeared to blink back sleep. Most of the questions focused on Iraq, but he also handled questions about inflation fears and how Democrats and Republicans will fare in the upcoming congressional elections.
“What’s going to matter is who has got the plan that will enable us to succeed in Iraq and keep the economy growing,” Mr. Bush said of the political campaign for control of Congress. “I believe we’re going to hold the House and the Senate, because our philosophy is one that is forward-looking and optimistic and has worked. We’ve got a record to run on.”
The president also turned aside two questions asking him to comment further about Karl Rove, his political adviser who was told this week that he won’t be indicted in the case stemming from the leaked identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
While saying he trusted Mr. Rove, Mr. Bush refused to say any more about the accusations that the White House leaked Mrs. Plame’s identity, pointing to the pending trial against Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff.
“You’ll keep asking questions during the course of the trial; we’re not going to comment beyond that,” Mr. Bush said.
The president also committed a minor faux pas at the press conference, asking Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times whether he was going to ask a question while wearing sunglasses. Mr. Wallsten is legally blind and wears the glasses to slow a genetic eye disorder. According to news reports, Mr. Bush later learned of the Mr. Wallsten’s medical condition and called to apologize to the reporter, who said he “wasn’t the least bit offended.”
Mr. Bush also said he had several messages from his trip.
“My message to the Iraqis is: We’re going to help you succeed. My message to the enemy is: Don’t count on us leaving before we succeed. My message to our troops is: We support you 100 percent. Keep doing what you’re doing. And my message to the critics is, is that we listen very carefully and adjust when needed to adjust.”
Senate Democrats are trying to craft a consensus amendment setting a timetable for withdrawing from Iraq and yesterday said they were close.
After meeting with Mr. Bush yesterday afternoon, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said the president has been clear in sending his message to terrorists that the U.S. isn’t leaving, but Mr. Durbin said the concern “is how the Iraqis read that statement.”
“When are we going to leave, and if the Iraqis do not believe they have to accept responsibility for their own future, and for their own country, how quickly will they be ready to stand and fight?” the minority whip said.
Some Democrats questioned Mr. Bush’s trip to Iraq, with Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, calling it “more like a well-staged media event than a true investigative mission” and top party leaders saying the visit doesn’t constitute a plan for victory.
“I don’t even think we have a clear idea of what the mission is in Iraq,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. “The message to the Iraqi people has to be that they must have significant transition this year in taking responsibility for their government and for their security.”
Republicans seemed to welcome the debate among Democrats.
“I think this is a particularly bad time to send a message to the terrorists in Iraq that we might be thinking of running, just when they’re running,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.
The White House also said recent weeks prove why the Democrats’ amendment is a bad strategy.
“If we had pulled American troops out of Iraq in April, as some Democrats in Congress had advocated, then our troops wouldn’t have brought Zarqawi and many other terrorists to justice,” said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.