- The Washington Times - Monday, November 17, 2003

President Bush yesterday rejected the notion that a plan to transfer power to Iraqis by July 1 is tantamount to a hasty exit strategy, telling Iraqi Governing Council members at the White House “when they hear me say we’re staying, that means we’re staying.”

While some Democrats on Capitol Hill, including former Clinton administration officials, accused the president of seeking political advantage for the 2004 campaign by rapidly handing over power to a new Iraqi government, Mr. Bush said the time had come to urge Iraqis to assume greater responsibility.

“The politics will go forward. The political process is moving on. The Iraqi people are plenty capable of governing themselves,” Mr. Bush said.

Under a plan tentatively approved by the Iraqi Governing Council, the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq will transfer sovereignty to a transitional government by the end of June, a move the president on Saturday said “is an important step toward realizing the vision of Iraq as a democratic, pluralistic country at peace with its neighbors.”

Under the timetable, a transitional administration will be named by the end of May and, after the transfer of power, the U.S.-backed Governing Council will be dissolved. But American forces will remain in Iraq at the pleasure of the new government and will stay until a stable democracy is established.

After meeting with female Iraqi members of the council, who told of the hardships they had suffered under Saddam Hussein’s government, Mr. Bush said he “assured these five women that America wasn’t leaving.”

“And that’s precisely what the terrorists want to do, is to try to drive us out of Iraq before these leaders and other leaders are able to put their government together and live in peace. And we will succeed,” he said.

Some lawmakers said the accelerated timetable is aimed at improving the president’s chances for re-election next November. “It looks like they are laying the groundwork for a premature departure,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, Illinois Democrat and a former senior Clinton administration official.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his “greatest fear” was that the administration would conclude “they have to bring Johnny and Jane home” in order to win the election.

But Mr. Bush yesterday pledged there would be no hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces.

“We will continue to work with the Iraqi people to secure its country. We fully recognize that Iraq has become a new front on the war on terror … and we will work with Iraqis to bring people to justice,” he said.

The Iraqi women who met with the president in the Oval Office urged the United States to keep its commitment to Iraq.

“We don’t want them to leave us,” said Songul Chapouk, a Baghdad engineer and teacher who is the founder of the Iraqi Women’s Organization in Kirkuk, which aims to organize women from all communities in Iraq.

“We need them because we have open borders, and we don’t have army and we don’t have trained policemen, so we need them at this time. And we ask them to not leave us, please, at this time, because this is a very, very difficult condition for us. Our children like you, our children want you to stay, and all Iraqi people like your forces,” she said.

Mr. Bush said: “The Iraqi people want to be free. And we will continue to work with them to develop a free society. And a free Iraq is not only in the interests of these five courageous women, a free Iraq is in our interests.

“A free Iraq in a part of the world that is troublesome and dangerous will set such a good example. We’re talking about a historic opportunity to change parts of the world, and Iraq will be the leader of that change,” he said.

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