- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 2004

President Bush yesterday downplayed the boycott of the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq by the country’s largest Sunni organization, saying “most people in Iraq, Sunni or Shia, want to vote.”

Mr. Bush also urged Iraqis to see Osama bin Laden’s opposition to the elections and his ties to terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi as all the more reason to participate in one of the Middle East’s largest experiments in democracy.

The Iraqi Islamic Party withdrew Monday from the elections, which will select a 275-member national assembly to draft Iraq’s new constitution, saying it had no confidence that the security situation will improve to “give conditions for a credible election.”

Mr. Bush, answering questions from reporters while on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, suggested that the withdrawal of the party does not mean many Sunnis will refuse to vote.

“I talked to [Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer] yesterday, who happens to be a Sunni, who on the one hand expressed concern about the security situation in Mosul and on the other hand reminded me that most people in Iraq — Sunni or Shia — want to vote,” Mr. Bush said.

“So, the task at hand is to provide as much security as possible for the election officials, as well as for the people inside cities like Mosul, to encourage them to express their will,” he said.

Joining the Sunni group’s call this week to skip the elections was bin Laden, who in a tape released Sunday called those who vote “infidels denouncing our great God.”

Bin Laden also praised Zarqawi, who recently changed the name of his terror network from “Unification and Jihad” to “al Qaeda in Iraq.”

“We were very pleased by their daring operations against the Americans and [the interim] infidel government,” said bin Laden, who called the Jordanian-born Zarqawi “the prince of al Qaeda in Iraq.” “We in al Qaeda welcome him joining forces with us.”

Mr. Bush pointed to this new alliance as proof that the fight in Iraq is part of the war on terror that has been waged since the attacks on September 11, 2001, which were masterminded by bin Laden.

“Osama bin Laden issued a statement which made the stakes of this pretty clear to me,” Mr. Bush said. “His vision of the world is where people don’t participate in democracy. His vision of the world is where people kill innocent lives in order to affect their behavior and affect their way of living. His vision of the world is one in which there is no freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of conscience.

Mr. Bush said “the vast majority of Iraqis” reject bin Laden and Zarqawi and share a vision of “freedom of expression, the freedom of the right to vote.”

“The stakes are clear in this upcoming election,” Mr. Bush said. “It’s the difference between the ability for individuals to express themselves and the willingness of an individual to try and impose his dark vision on the world, on the people of Iraq and elsewhere. It’s very important that these elections proceed.”

The president also reacted to complaints lodged by some troops and their families about a lack of proper armor to carry out their mission in Iraq. He said Humvees, which are vulnerable to makeshift roadside bombs, will be fitted with stronger armor by midsummer.

“I have looked at the statistics on that, and we have stepped up the production of armored Humvees significantly,” Mr. Bush said. “The other issue is the rearmament of vehicles that are now in theater, vehicles that require a different armament structure than that which they initially were manufactured with.

“I am told that those vehicles will be armed up by midsummer of 2005,” he said. “And what I know is, is that the Defense Department is working expeditiously with private contractors and with our military to get these vehicles armed up.”

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