- The Washington Times - Monday, May 22, 2006

CHICAGO — President Bush yesterday acknowledged that progress in Iraq has been “incremental,” expressed concern about a flourishing anti-Americanism in South America and when asked if he planned to see former Vice President Al Gore’s new movie about global warming, said: “Doubt it.”

In his third statement in three days on Iraq, the president praised Iraqis for establishing a new unity leadership, calling the move announced Saturday a turning point in the war against terror.

“This is a free government under a democratic constitution, and its formation marks a victory for the cause of freedom in the Middle East,” Mr. Bush said. “The unity government opens a new chapter in the relationship between the United States and Iraq. … As the new Iraqi government grows in confidence and capability, America will play an increasingly supporting role.”

But the president acknowledged that the new government “is still a work in progress, and overcoming long-standing divisions will take time.” After three years and 2,500 Americans soldiers lost in Iraq, Mr. Bush said that “the way forward will bring more days of challenge and loss.”

“The progress we’ve made has been hard-fought, and it’s been incremental. There have been setbacks and missteps — like Abu Ghraib — that were felt immediately and have been difficult to overcome. Yet we have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror,” the president told 2,000 people at the National Restaurant Association, packed into an auditorium at McCormick Place along Lake Michigan.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid criticized the president’s speech, saying it was “yet another missed opportunity” to provide leadership.

“It’s time for the Iraqi people to take control of their own country, their own affairs and long past time that this administration should come up with a plan that places the burden of securing Iraq’s forces on Iraq itself. The burden of securing Iraq should be on Iraqis, not the United States,” the Nevada Democrat said.

But Mr. Bush said Iraqis know they must move forward swiftly with a plan to establish stability and security in their country. “The unity government must now seize its moment and pursue a common agenda for the future.”

The president was asked during an audience question-and-answer session about recent anti-Americanism in Venezuela and Bolivia. “Let me just put it bluntly — I’m concerned about the erosion of democracy in the countries you mentioned,” he said.

While he did not take direct aim at the two nations, Mr. Bush said, “I am going to continue to remind our hemisphere that respect for property rights and human rights is essential for all countries in order for there to be prosperity and peace.”

But the president was less diplomatic when asked if he would see Mr. Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth.” His “doubt it” response drew loud laughter from the crowd.

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