- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

ISTANBUL — President Bush yesterday lauded the transfer of sovereignty to a new Iraqi government as a “proud moral achievement” for the United States and its allies and pledged America’s support in building a democracy and fighting terrorists bent on destroying the new government “no matter how tough it gets.”

“After decades of brutal rule by a terror regime, the Iraqi people have their country back,” said a beaming Mr. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair after emerging from the first day of the NATO summit talks. The two leaders were informed during the meeting and held back their elation until it was over.

“This is a day of great hope for Iraqis and a day that terrorist enemies hoped never to see,” Mr. Bush said. “The terrorists are doing all they can to stop the rise of a free Iraq. But their bombs and attacks have not prevented Iraqi sovereignty, and they will not prevent Iraqi democracy.”

The stunning announcement overshadowed the reason that 26 world leaders have gathered in Istanbul: the two-day NATO summit. The organization agreed yesterday to a vaguely worded statement acceding to new Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s request to train Iraq’s emerging security forces.

The lack of details in the document points to continued disputes over how deeply NATO should embroil itself in Iraq’s protection and reconstruction.

French President Jacques Chirac yesterday reiterated his view that it is not NATO’s role “to intervene in Iraq.” However, 16 other NATO members are contributing troops to secure Iraq, and a strong majority — minus France and Germany, which vehemently opposed the war at every turn — have indicated a willingness to enter the country as Mr. Allawi has asked.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said he wouldn’t send any troops to Iraq, but would continue training Iraqi soldiers outside country.

“There will be no military engagement of our own, no German soldiers in Iraq,” Mr. Schroeder said.

The transfer of power, which surprised the world when it occurred two days earlier than planned, puts Iraq “a world away from the tormented, exhausted and isolated country we found last year” under the control of Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush said.

The president pointed to this historic moment to counter critics, both in the United States and abroad, who have focused more on the abuse of a small number of Iraqi detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison rather than on the liberation of the Iraqi people.

“This day also marks a proud moral achievement for members of our coalition,” he said. “We pledged to end a dangerous regime, to free the oppressed and restore sovereignty. We have kept our word.”

The transfer of sovereignty comes 15 months after Saddam was toppled, a span of time that Mr. Bush viewed as remarkably short.

“Fifteen months ago, Iraq was ruled by a regime that brutalized and tortured its own people, murdered hundreds of thousands, and buried them in mass graves,” Mr. Bush said. “Today, Iraqis live under a government that strives for justice, upholds the rule of law and defends the dignity of every citizen.”

Mr. Allawi now has control of the government, but he hardly has control of the country. Terrorists, led by al Qaeda associate Abu Musab Zarqawi, have killed scores of Iraqi civilians and hundreds of U.S. troops.

The terror campaign has taken a gruesome turn in recent weeks with the kidnapping and beheading at least two foreign civilians at the direction of Zarqawi. His group has custody of three Turkish contractors; while two separate militant groups are holding a U.S. Marine and a Pakistani contractor.

No one taken by terrorists operating out of Iraq has been returned safely, and all have had their decapitations filmed and distributed to the press.

Mr. Allawi has hinted that he might impose martial law in Iraq until he gets the terrorists — most of whom are thought to be foreign fighters — under control.

Mr. Bush said he wouldn’t have a problem with Mr. Allawi taking such measures or enlisting the help of the U.S. military to do it.

“He may have to,” Mr. Bush said. “And our job is to help the Iraqis stand up forces that are able to deal with these thugs.

“Look, they can’t whip our militaries. What they can do is get on your TV screens and stand in front of your TV cameras and cut somebody’s head off in order to try to cause us to cringe and retreat,” he said. “That’s their strongest weapon. And as Prime Minister Allawi has said publicly many times, he will not cower in the face of such brutal murder, and neither will we.”

Mr. Bush said he feels “comfortable” trusting Mr. Allawi and new Iraqi President Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer not to abuse their newfound power, even if martial law is declared.

“These are strong people,” Mr. Bush said. “They’re gutsy, they’re courageous. They’re, as we say in Texas, stand-up guys. They’ll lead their people to a better day … and they’ll have our friendship and support, no matter how tough it gets.

NATO also agreed to boost the number of troops policing Afghanistan in the months leading up to September’s elections. Few members of the alliance outside the United States have come close to living up to the promises made in both troops and financial support to secure the country.

“We have agreed today to a major expansion of NATO’s role in Afghanistan,” said NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. “We made a commitment to help, and we will meet it.”

At a European Union meeting in Ireland last week, Mr. Bush declared that the “bitter differences” that the war spawned are over, but Mr. Blair disagreed.

“There’s no point in us standing here and saying, ‘All of the previous disagreements have disappeared.’ They haven’t,” Mr. Blair said.

But the prime minister said it is significant that the United Nations has “blessed the new government in Iraq” and that “there is a good and sound NATO role” in the country.

“In that sense, I think the international community has come together, and I welcome it,” Mr. Blair said.

Mr. Bush said he is concerned that some traditional allies still might be holding a grudge over the war and hoped they’d let it go, because “it’s important for nations that are blessed by freedom to come together to help nations that are struggling to be free.”

“The more people who say this is worthwhile, the more likely it is 50 million [Iraqis] are going to realize the blessings that we have,” Mr. Bush said. “The world will be better off for it, and the examples of free societies in [the greater Middle East] are going to make a huge difference in the lives of others.”

One of those “others,” Mr. Bush said, is Iran — a militant Islamic state that is thought to be developing nuclear weapons and, with North Korea, represents the remainder of what the president calls “the axis of evil.”

“Listen, there are people inside Iran who are watching what’s happening — young, vibrant professional people who want to be free,” Mr. Bush said. “And they are wondering whether or not they’ll have that opportunity.”

The president will close the NATO summit with a speech today before heading back to Washington.

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