- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 27, 2008

President Bush today praised the Iraqi government and military’s performance in an ongoing battle with militia fighters, framing it as a defining moment that symbolizes their growing independence from U.S. support.

At the same time, the president ridiculed critics who say there are no stakes and there is no progress in Iraq, and said that no matter what “their prescription is always the same: retreat.”

He said his decision next month on troop levels in Iraq will be made with an eye toward preserving security gains achieved by sending 30,000 additional troops to the country a year ago.

In Iraq, fighting continued in the southern city of Basra between government forces and militia fighters, prompting protests in Baghdad by thousands of Iraqis sympathetic to the militias.

Also in Baghdad, rocket attacks killed one civilian and wounded 14 others in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, one day after three Americans were wounded by rocket attacks.

Mr. Bush, speaking in Dayton, Ohio, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made a “bold decision” to confront Shiite militia forces in Basra.

Mr. al-Maliki’s choice to personally oversee the military operation, Mr. Bush said, “shows his leadership and his commitment to enforce the law in an evenhanded manner” and “demonstrates to the Iraqi people that their government is committed to protecting them.”

Mr. Bush said that many of the militia fighters have “received arms and training from Iran” but promised that Mr. al-Maliki’s government forces would prevail, though he said that the “operation’s going to take some time to complete.”

An estimated 100 to 200 people have been killed in Iraq as a result of the fighting, which began Tuesday.

The president also forecast “tough fighting” ahead for U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, where he said that al Qaeda in Iraq had transferred its operations after being driven from the western Anbar province.

Though the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned Mr. Bush at the Pentagon yesterday that the U.S. military is strained and its soldiers are tired, the president did not appear inclined to continue withdrawals from Iraq after the 30,000 or so surge troops are withdrawn by July.

The White House has already said that Mr. Bush will likely pause drawdowns this summer to see whether violence, which has been reduced, spikes back up.

However, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said Mr. Bush was painting “a rosy picture” of Iraq in “a vain effort to justify his failing policy there.”

“The President counsels the American people to be patient’ even as the Iraqis fail to take the steps necessary to achieve political reconciliation,” Mr. Hoyer said.

Mr. Bush, however, said that Iraq’s parliament has made “remarkable” progress, pointing to the passage of one significant measure over each of the last four months.

And he said that signs of normal life are returning, such as a recently held 5-kilometer race in “what used to be the most dangerous streets” in Anbar province.

The president said it is “worth remembering the enormity of what the Iraqis are trying to do.”

“They’re striving to build a modern democracy on the rubble of three decades of tyranny, in a region of the world that has been hostile to freedom,” he said. “And they’re doing it while under assault from one of history’s most brutal terrorist networks.”

Mr. Bush hit back at comments made last weekend by Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, that were critical of the Iraqi government.

“When it takes time for Iraqis to reach agreement, it is not foot- dragging, as one senator described it during Congress’s two-week Easter recess. It is a revolutionary undertaking that requires great courage,” Mr. Bush said.

The president also said that the argument by some for withdrawal from Iraq to focus on “battles that really matter,” such as in Afghanistan, “makes no sense.”

The White House also said today that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will visit Mr. Bush in May, possibly on May 1.

Mr. Bush will travel to Israel in mid-May to celebrate the Jewish state’s 60th anniversary and to push peace talks forward between Israel and the Palestinians.

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