- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

President Bush yesterday praised a compromise Iraqi constitution and the troops who will guard voters as they go to the polls tomorrow to decide whether to approve the document.

“I’m very impressed that the Iraqi government has continued to work to have a constitution that attracts Sunnis and Shias and Kurds,” the president said in a videoconference call to U.S. and Iraqi troops in Tikrit, Iraq. “They’ve worked hard to get a constitution, and now the people of Iraq are going to get to vote.”

In a conversation that was criticized by Democrats and journalists as overly scripted, U.S. troops sought to reassure the president about tomorrow’s referendum.

“Sir, we are prepared to do whatever it takes to make this thing a success,” said 1st Lt. Gregg Murphy. “But the important thing here is that the Iraqi army and the Iraqi security forces, they’re ready, and they’re committed. They’re going to make this thing happen.”

Capt. Steven Pratt agreed, saying the Iraqi forces were taking the lead in security for the election.

“Along with the coalition backing them, we’ll have a very successful and effective referendum vote,” he said.

Capt. Pratt was among 10 U.S. troops and one Iraqi soldier who were selected by the Pentagon for the presidential conference call, which was shown on live television. The participants were told beforehand that the president would ask them about security in Iraq, efforts to protect Iraqi voters and the training of Iraqi troops.

Democrats dismissed the call as a cynical political stunt.

“Victory for the people of Iraq, our soldiers and the American people requires more than high-tech photo ops,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. “It requires a plan for success.”

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, added that Mr. Bush missed an opportunity “to speak frankly to our brave men and women fighting in Iraq and the American people about the performance of his strategy in Iraq.”

Mr. Bush spent part of yesterday’s conversation giving a blunt description of the Iraqi insurgency. His comments echoed observations made by al Qaeda’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, in a recent letter to his top deputy in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi.

“We’re facing an enemy that is ruthless and cold-blooded, an enemy that actually has a philosophy,” the president explained. “The enemy understands that a free Iraq will be a blow to their vision and their strategy of spreading dominance throughout the broader Middle East.”

At times, Mr. Bush appeared to be responding directly to the al-Zawahri letter, which was intercepted over the summer and disclosed by the administration on Tuesday.

“One of the tactics of the enemy is to shake our will,” the president told the troops. “Part of their strategy is to use the killing of innocent people to get the American government to pull you out of there before the mission is complete.

“I’m going to assure you of this, that so long as I’m the president, we’re never going to back down. … ”

Mr. Bush noted the irony of a free election in Tikrit, where former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was raised.

“It’s Saddam’s old stomping grounds,” he marveled. “That’s a pretty interesting concept for the people of Tikrit, when you really think about the fact that that was Saddam Hussein’s hometown. They didn’t get to vote too often when he was the leader there.”

Mindful that his Iraq policy is under constant attack from Democrats and the press, Mr. Bush tried to buck up the soldiers by emphasizing the long-term importance of their mission.

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