Wednesday, April 14, 2004

President Bush last night vowed to meet the June 30 deadline to transfer power to Iraqis, saying violent groups will not “run us out of Iraq and destroy the democratic hopes of the Iraqi people.”

“The violence we have seen is a power grab by these extreme and ruthless elements. It’s not a civil war. It’s not a popular uprising. Most of Iraq is relatively stable. Most Iraqis by far reject violence and oppose dictatorship,” Mr. Bush said after acknowledging that coalition forces have encountered “tough weeks” in Iraq.

Mr. Bush said the war in Iraq is just one “battle” in the greater war on terror, and his intention is to “change the world” by advancing freedom throughout the Middle East to better protect the United States from attacks by Islamist militants.

“Now is the time, and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world. We must not waver,” Mr. Bush said in his 12th press conference, the third in prime time.

Mr. Bush identified three groups as instigators of violence in Iraq: remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime working with Islamist militants; terrorists from other countries; and supporters of Shi’ite cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr.

“Were the coalition to step back from the June 30th pledge, many Iraqis would question our intentions and feel their hopes betrayed. And those in Iraq who trade in hatred and conspiracy theories would find a larger audience and gain a stronger hand,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush also reopened the question of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the main reason for the U.S.-led invasion. He pointed out that Libya recently relinquished chemical weapons that had been hidden on a farm and suggested the same thing could happen in Iraq.

“They could still be there,” said Mr. Bush, who has come under fierce criticism at home and abroad for not finding chemical and biological weapons in Iraq. “They could be hidden, like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm.”

The president chided those who accused him of letting the al Qaeda threat mature too much while not letting the Iraq threat mature enough.

“There have been some that said, ‘Well, we should’ve taken pre-emptive action in Afghanistan,’ and then turned around and said, ‘We shouldn’t have taken pre-emptive action in Iraq,’” he said in response to a question from The Washington Times.

Last night’s press conference carries important political implications because Mr. Bush has staked his presidency on his record in the war on terror and the effort to liberate Iraq from Saddam.

The latest developments on both fronts have the potential to hurt him in what has been a close matchup with Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry.

Violence in the Iraqi city of Fallujah and a Shi’ite uprising in the south has lasted for more than a week and taken the lives of more than 70 U.S. troops and about 250 Iraqis.

Mr. Kerry said yesterday the recent violence in some sections of Iraq is proof that “it’s even clearer that the mission is not accomplished” and called for the United Nations to become a “full partner” in the reconstruction and political reform in the country.

“Tonight, the president had the opportunity to tell the American people what steps he was going to take to stabilize the situation in Iraq. Unfortunately, he offered no specific plan whatsoever,” Mr. Kerry said last night.

Mr. Bush remains committed to handing sovereignty in Iraq to the Iraqi Governing Council on June 30 despite the increased violence and unrest. Critics from both parties have suggested that the country is too chaotic for such a turnover and have suggested that Mr. Bush is most at fault for the lack of calm in Iraq.

Supporters of Mr. Kerry — namely Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, his fellow Democratic senator from Massachusetts — have compared the war in Iraq to the Vietnam War to characterize Mr. Bush’s policy as a failure.

Mr. Bush rejected that comparison last night and said suggesting that the two wars are similar harms the morale and safety of U.S. troops.

“I think the analogy is false,” Mr. Bush said. “I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops and sends the wrong message to the enemy.

“Look, this is hard work. It’s hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny,” the president said. “A secure and free Iraq is an historic opportunity to change the world and make America more secure.”

Responding to criticism that he has not committed enough troops to stabilize Iraq, Mr. Bush said as of yesterday, Gen. John Abizaid, the chief of the U.S. Central Command in Iraq, has as strong a force as he needs.

“We’re constantly reviewing [the troops] needs,” Mr. Bush said. “Troop strength now and in the future is determined by the situation on the ground. If additional forces are needed, I will send them. If additional resources are needed, we will provide them.”

The White House also has been put on the defensive by the latest public hearings of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States.

Mr. Bush said the Aug. 6, 2001, presidential daily briefing — which Democrats have characterized as an explicit warning of the September 11 attacks — was a summary of “mainly history” and didn’t contain much new information.

“There was a warning about bin Laden’s desires on America, but, frankly, I didn’t think it was anything new,” Mr. Bush said. “I mean, major newspapers had talked about bin Laden’s desires on hurting America.”

What the memo told him, Mr. Bush said, was that the FBI was conducting 70 field investigations on bin Laden-related activities.

“We had a counterterrorism group meeting on a regular basis to analyze the threats that came in. Had there been a threat that required action by anybody in the government, I would have dealt with it,” Mr. Bush said.

Attorney General John Ashcroft was the star witness yesterday as Democrats questioned him about what they see as the failure of the Bush administration to interpret vague clues about the September 11 attacks and act to stop them.

A preliminary staff statement by the September 11 commission, read publicly yesterday, faulted the Justice Department under Mr. Bush and President Clinton for neglecting the threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice last week vigorously defended the administration’s preattack actions, explaining that Mr. Bush was working on a new strategy to “eliminate al Qaeda” rather than just “roll it back,” as was the policy of the Clinton administration.

Polls showed that after her testimony last week, more Americans thought the Bush administration did all it could to stop the September 11 attacks. She was also found more credible than her former intelligence subordinate Richard A. Clarke, who wrote a book saying Mr. Bush was inattentive to the threat of al Qaeda.

Mr. Bush, unlike Mr. Clarke, did not apologize for the September 11 attacks.

“I can understand why people in my administration are anguished over the fact that people lost their lives,” Mr. Bush said. “I feel the same way. I’m sick when I think about the death that took place on that day.”

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