- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

President Bush said yesterday that he has “firmly planted the flag of liberty” in Iraq and is encouraged by the “incredible bravery” shown by Iraqis who will participate in the country’s first free elections.

Mr. Bush, who held his second press conference since his re-election, tried to encourage Iraqis who feel threatened by increased terrorist activity leading up to Sunday’s election and to counter critics who have called his attempt to foster democracy in Iraq a failure.

“I think the Iraqi people are wondering whether or not this nation has the will necessary to stand with them as a democracy evolves,” he said. “The enemy would like nothing more than the United States to precipitously pull out and withdraw before the Iraqis are prepared to defend themselves.”

Mr. Bush also addressed Senate Democrats who have used the hearings on the nominations of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Alberto Gonzales as attorney general to call his handling of the postwar problems in Iraq a debacle.

“The notion that somehow we’re not making progress, I just don’t subscribe to,” he said. “We’re having elections, and I think we need to put this moment in history in proper context.

“I am encouraged and I am heartened by the fact the Iraqi citizens are showing incredible bravery,” he said. “Clearly, there are some who are intimidated. I urge people to vote. I urge people to defy these terrorists.”

More than half of Americans say it’s unlikely that Iraq will become stable and democratic, according to an Associated Press poll, but Mr. Bush said failing to follow through on spreading democracy through the largely dictatorial and theocratic Middle East “condemns people to tyranny.”

“I refuse to accept that point of view. I am optimistic about the advance of freedom, and so should the American people,” said the president, listing elections in Afghanistan, Ukraine and among the Palestinians as “incredibly hopeful.”

“We’re witnessing amazing history,” he said. “And the fundamental question is: Can we advance that history? That’s what my inauguration speech said. It said, yes, we can.”

Senate Democrats said yesterday that they weren’t using the often heated debate over Miss Rice’s nomination to undermine the president’s attempts to remake Iraq into a democracy.

“It’s very important that the American people understand that but really, more important, that our friends and foes in Iraq, throughout the Islamic world, and the world generally understand that,” said Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat and a supporter of Miss Rice.

“There is not substantial dissent in the Senate of the United States about the policy that we are following in Iraq today,” he said.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, who also voted for Miss Rice’s confirmation, said the senators who voted no, by raising their questions, were “doing a service to the Senate, and possibly making it less likely the secretary of state will be less candid with us” in the future.

When questioning Miss Rice earlier this week, however, Mr. Biden criticized the White House for “sticking to the party line” that “you never made any mistakes.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, said Republicans’ complaints about the course of the debate were wrong.

“Shut up and vote is not democracy,” Mr. Reid said.

In an interview yesterday with Al Arabiya television, Mr. Bush said he is concerned about Iran trying to push Iraqis to embrace a like-minded Islamic theocracy, but he is “confident that Iraqi citizens will want Iraq to be free from any influence.”

“They want to be able to vote and elect people that will represent their views, not the view of a foreign government,” Mr. Bush said.

Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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