President Bush yesterday warned lawmakers not to try to “pull the rug” out from under the U.S. military in Iraq just as troops are making progress against insurgents.
In a fiery speech to thousands at a Veterans of Foreign Wars conference in Kansas City, Mo., the president also criticized members of Congress who have called for the ouster of embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“It’s not up to politicians in Washington, D.C., to say whether he will remain in his position — that is up to the Iraqi people, who now live in a democracy, and not a dictatorship,” Mr. Bush said.
Mr. Bush said the “surge” of 30,000 troops has brought dramatic progress in the war.
“Our troops have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists and other extremists every month since January of this year,” Mr. Bush said.
But Democrats — especially the cadre of candidates running for the 2008 presidential nomination — repeatedly have called for withdrawal from Iraq, some as soon as the end of this year, and are increasingly critical of the fledgling Iraqi government.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — who told the VFW conference on Monday that the surge is clearly “working” — said yesterday that it has failed.
“It is abundantly clear that there is no military solution to the sectarian fighting in Iraq,” the New York Democrat said. “We need to stop refereeing the war, and start getting out now.”
On Monday, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, said Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, should be ousted and replaced with a less-sectarian leader. Mr. Bush and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on Tuesday both voiced frustration and disappointment with the government, but the president yesterday urged patience.
“Prime Minister Maliki is a good guy, a good man with a difficult job, and I support him,” he said.
In Syria, Mr. al-Maliki yesterday lashed out at U.S. criticism, blaming the presidential campaign for the recent tough words from the Bush administration and from other politicians.
“No one has the right to place timetables on the Iraq government,” he said at a press conference in Damascus. “It was elected by its people.”
The harsh rhetoric has emerged as Mr. Crocker and the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, prepare to deliver a mid-September report to Congress on the success of the surge, along with an assessment of the Iraqi government’s progress in achieving political reconciliation.
The president’s speech drew stern rebukes from Democrats, who in recent days have been tempering their antiwar rhetoric but who yesterday returned to their calls for immediate change.
“Iraq is George Bush’s Vietnam,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts. “It is a quagmire. — The president misled the American people about the need for war, and he misleads them now, clinging to the false hope that his failed policy has a chance of succeeding with a few more months.”
But House Minority Leader John A. Boehner said the president is right to question whether the Democrat-led Congress will seek to “pull the rug out” from under U.S. troops.
“House Republicans are prepared to ensure this doesn’t happen, and every day more and more of our Democratic colleagues agree with us, bucking their party leaders in the process,” the Ohio Republican said. “The successes of our troops in defeating al Qaeda in Iraq and improving security for Iraqi citizens are now undeniable.”
The president said Tuesday he continues to have a sense of “frustration” with the pace of reform in Iraq, which the White House yesterday said was overblown in reports by The Washington Post and the New York Times.
Mr. Bush yesterday reiterated those frustrations.
“Many are frustrated by the pace of progress in Baghdad, and I can understand this,” he said. “A free Iraq’s not going to be perfect. A free Iraq will not make decisions as quickly as the country did under the dictatorship.”
But the president said that the “allure of retreat” may be as tempting for Americans now as it was during the Korean and Vietnam wars, but that U.S. security depends on what happens in Iraq.
“We pursue the extremists wherever we find them, and we stand with the Iraqis at this difficult hour — because the shadow of terror will never be lifted from our world and the American people will never be safe until the people of the Middle East know the freedom that our Creator meant for all,” he said.