- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the Bush administration’s first substantive comment on Iraq since Gen. David H. Petraeus’ reported to Congress, said yesterday that, when security there improves, U.S. forces will “turn to other responsibilities,” including protecting Iraq’s border with Iran.

Miss Rice also said she still thinks that the American commitment to Iraq “will make a more stable Middle East.”

“Iraq has very troublesome neighbors,” she told NBC’s “Today” show. “Iran is a very troublesome neighbor, and I would note that President [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad said that, if the United States leaves Iraq, Iran is prepared to fill the vacuum. That is what is at stake here.”

President Bush is expected today to endorse Gen. Petraeus’ recommendations to withdraw as many as 30,000 troops by next summer.

Miss Rice focused on the “security improvements” reported by Gen. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. forces in Iraq, and rejected suggestions that the progress on the ground has been too limited.

“Local leaders are taking back their streets from al Qaeda. Those are changes, and that’s progress that just simply can’t be ignored. It can’t be talked away,” she said.

On Tuesday, when Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, asked Gen. Petraeus whether the Iraq war was making America safer, the general said: “I don’t know.” Miss Rice had a different answer.

“The war in Iraq, when we are successful there, will make a more stable Iraq, and that will make a more stable Middle East,” she said. “Clearly, a stable Middle East will make America safer.”

She spoke often of stability but did not use the word “democracy” once, even though democratization in the Arab world had been a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in the second Bush administration.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack later told reporters that the U.S. had not abandoned its support for democratic reforms, saying that Iraq’s “struggling democracy” could be an example for the region.

Many Arabs, especially in Iraq, have derided that view, saying without basic neighborhood security, which vanished with the 2003 U.S. invasion, democracy is meaningless.

Miss Rice’s comments were the first in a series of planned attempts by the administration to emphasize the positive elements in the reports by Gen. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Tomorrow, Mr. Bush is scheduled to visit a Marine base in Quantico, Va., to talk further about his Iraq policy. Vice President Dick Cheney is expected to speak at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., and at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.

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