- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 6, 2004

President Bush yesterday said recent violence in Iraq would not delay the transfer of authority on June 30 and warned that attacks against Americans would intensify as the turnover draws near.

“The closer we come to the deadline, the more likely it is people will challenge our will,” he told reporters during a visit to North Carolina. “It provides a convenient excuse to attack.”

Mr. Bush insisted attempts to incite a religiously based civil war between Sunnis and Shi’ites will fail, referring to a strategy foreshadowed in a letter written by al Qaeda leader Abu Musab Zarqawi to a top lieutenant of Osama bin Laden.

“The al Qaeda affiliate Zarqawi made it clear that part of the strategy was to turn Shia on Sunni by killing innocent Iraqis,” said Mr. Bush, who pointed out that most of the victims of recent violence have been Iraqis. “And we’ve got to stay the course, and we will stay the course.

“The message to the Iraqi citizens is [that] they don’t have to fear that America will turn and run,” he added. “If they think that we’re not sincere about staying the course, many people will not continue to take a risk toward freedom and democracy.”

Zarqawi complained in the letter, which was intercepted by U.S. forces shortly after the capture of Saddam Hussein in December: “Our enemy is growing stronger day after day, and its intelligence information increases. … By god, this is suffocation!”

Yesterday, the president blamed a radical Shi’ite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, for inciting supporters to kill eight U.S. troops and more than 50 Iraqis in Baghdad and Najaf on Sunday. Mr. Bush pointed out that an Iraqi judge has issued an arrest warrant for Mr. al-Sadr in connection with the killing of another Shi’ite leader.

“This is one person who is deciding that rather than allow democracy to flourish, he’s going to exercise force,” the president said. “And we just can’t let it stand.”

Mr. Bush said Americans also were being challenged in Fallujah, where insurgents killed and mutilated four U.S. contractors last week. U.S. Marines and Iraqi security forces sealed off the city yesterday.

“Throughout this period, there’s going to be tests,” the president said. “We were tested in Fallujah. And the desire for those who do not want there to be a free and democratic Iraq is to shake our will through acts of violence and terror.”

Asked repeatedly whether he would delay the turnover of sovereignty to Iraq beyond June 30, Mr. Bush refused to budge.

“No, the date remains firm,” he said. “The intention is to make sure the deadline remains the same. I believe we can transfer authority by June 30.”

The assurance came one day after Sen. Richard G. Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, questioned whether Iraq was ready to take control of its own destiny so soon.

“The real issue is June 30, how we are going to make that transition,” the Indiana Republican said on ABC’s “This Week.” Asked whether the scheduled turnover is too soon, he said: “It may be, and I think it’s time to have that debate.”

Also on June 30, the president will replace U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer, although the replacement has not been found.

“I am looking for somebody who can run a big embassy, somebody who understands the relationship between an embassy and the military,” Mr. Bush said. “This person is going to need to have enough experience to basically start an embassy from the ground up and also be willing to transfer certain people and authorities from the [Coalition Provisional Authority] to the embassy itself.

“In other words, it’s a very complex task that’s going to require a skilled soul,” he added. “And we’re in the process of searching it out now.”

Meanwhile, the Pentagon is making contingency plans for deploying more troops to Iraq. A senior Central Command official said although there are no immediate plans to boost troop levels, the riots in Baghdad and Najaf have prompted a reassessment.

“Given the events of this weekend and the obvious potential for more demonstrations or more violence, we have asked the staff to at least take a look and see what forces are available out there in a quick-response mode, in the event that they should be needed if there was a widespread move in that direction,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

There are about 120,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

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