Monday, November 21, 2005

BEIJING — President Bush yesterday weighed in from half a world away on Congress’ debate over the Iraq war, calling Rep. John P. Murtha a “good man” who served America with honor, but saying his proposal to immediately withdraw troops “does not make sense.”

Mr. Bush rejected the notion that war critics lack patriotism, saying, “This is not an issue of who’s patriotic and who’s not patriotic. It’s an issue of an honest, open debate about the way forward in Iraq.”

He said he looks forward to the day when U.S. troops can come home — but that day has not arrived.

“As the Iraqi security forces gain strength and experience, we can lessen our troop presence in the country without losing our capability to effectively defeat the terrorists,” Mr. Bush said before attending a lavish state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Great Hall of the People.

“A reduced presence of coalition forces will clearly demonstrate to the Iraqi people that we have no ambitions to occupy their country,” he said. “Yet, leaving prematurely will have terrible consequences for our own security and for the Iraqi people. And that’s not going to happen so long as I’m the president.”

Hours before leaving for Mongolia on the last leg of his eight-day, four-country Asia trip, the president said he understands that Americans are debating the merits of the Iraq war — in which more than 2,100 U.S. troops have died — but said lawmakers from both parties understand the cost of premature withdrawal.

“I’m not surprised that people are talking about Iraq. … People should feel comfortable about expressing their opinions about Iraq,” he said.

Continuing a White House offensive that began in Asia after liberal Democrats accused the president of manipulating prewar intelligence in order to mislead Americans about the threat posed by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, Mr. Bush said Democrats have never offered a viable solution.

“Those elected leaders in Washington who do not support our policies in Iraq have every right to voice their dissent. They also have a responsibility to provide a credible alternative. The stakes are too high, and the national interest too important, for anything otherwise,” he said.

The president’s remarks came after the House voted 403-3 Friday to reject a resolution urging an immediate pullout of U.S. troops. The measure, called by Republicans and designed to put Democrats on the record, came a day after Mr. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, called for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

The White House, whose top staff left Washington last Monday for the Asia trip, was slow in rebutting Democrats who have questioned the president’s integrity in leading the nation to war. But senior Bush adviser Dan Bartlett said the White House decided to go on the offensive while still in Asia because the debate had “reached a critical mass.”

Mr. Bush leaves China without any tangible result from his two-day visit, although he pressed Mr. Hu to expand religious, political and social freedom and open China’s huge markets to U.S. farmers and businesses.

Delivering a clear message to communist leaders who cracked down on Christians in the days before his arrival, Mr. Bush opened his visit with an early morning trip to a sanctioned church in Beijing.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice expressed disappointment with China’s response to a U.S. request in September for action on specific human rights cases — a list Mr. Bush described bluntly as “dissidents that we believe are unfairly imprisoned.”

“We’ve certainly not seen the progress that we would expect,” Miss Rice said.

Mr. Bush said he had pressed Mr. Hu for fairer treatment of nongovernmental charity organizations and suggested that the Chinese invite the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, and Roman Catholic leaders to China to discuss religious freedom.

The president said pressing for religious freedom was a good way to ensure that other freedoms follow.

“They go hand in hand. A society which recognizes religious freedom is a society which will recognize political freedom as well,” he said. “President Hu is a thoughtful fellow, and he listened to what I had to say.”

Mr. Bush also urged China to do more to provide fair opportunities for American farmers and businesses seeking access to China’s market.

The two leaders readily acknowledged differences but stressed cooperation in preventing and controlling bird flu and persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

Mr. Bush invited Mr. Hu to the United States next year to make up for a visit postponed in September because of Hurricane Katrina.

The president heads to Mongolia today, the first stop in the country by a U.S. president.

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