- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 29, 2006

President Bush yesterday blamed sectarian violence in Iraq on Saddam Hussein and his legacy of oppression, but said freedom and democracy will win if all the opposing political factions can put aside their differences and form a government.

In his third speech this month to reassure Americans that his war plan is working, the president took on those who charge that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has created an unprecedented insurgency. In a question-and-answer period at Freedom House, a 65-year-old organization that supports expansion of freedom, Mr. Bush faced down critics.

“Today, some Americans ask whether removing Saddam caused the divisions and instability we’re now seeing. In fact, much of the animosity and violence we now see is the legacy of Saddam Hussein,” Mr. Bush said.

Iraq, he added, is “a nation that is physically and emotionally scarred by three decades of Saddam’s tyranny, and these wounds will take time to heal.”

He opposed the idea that sectarian violence was created solely by the U.S.-led war to oust the dictator, who he said aggravated divisions among rival sects in Iraq through deliberate policies of ethnic cleansing and targeted violence. The animosity that was created during three decades remains, and insurgents are using the same techniques to sow division, such as bombing mosques.

The president did not blame all of Iraq’s strife on Saddam. He pushed for sectarian leaders to move forward with creating a unity government and taking responsibility for the nation’s future.

“I also want the Iraqi people to hear: It’s about time you get a unity government going. In other words, Americans understand you’re newcomers to the political arena, but pretty soon it’s time to shut her down and get governing,” Mr. Bush said.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, accused Mr. Bush of sending “mixed messages.”

“The president can give all the speeches he wants, but nothing will change the fact that his Iraq policy is wrong,” Mr. Reid said. “Two weeks ago, he told the American people that Iraqis would control their country by the end of the year. But last week, he told us our troops would be there until at least 2009.”

Mr. Bush said the U.S. must stay the course despite recent setbacks and outbursts of violence in Iraq.

Referring to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the president said winning in Iraq is crucial to homeland security. He took aim at Democratic opponents on Capitol Hill who advocate immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“While it might sound attractive to some, it would have disastrous consequences for American security,” he said.

In nearly every speech on Iraq since November, Mr. Bush acknowledged that “there will be more tough fighting ahead with difficult days that test the patience and the resolve of our country.”

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