- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2008

President Bush yesterday praised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for taking on militia fighters in the south of his country, framing it as a defining moment that symbolizes Iraq’s growing independence from U.S. support.

However, protests and violence in Baghdad escalated yesterday, as one U.S. civilian was killed by a rocket attack in the U.S.-controlled Green Zone, militia forces kidnapped Iraqi government spokesman Tahseen Sheikhly and took him prisoner, and the Iraqi government imposed a curfew.

But Mr. Bush ridiculed critics who say there is no progress in Iraq, and he said that no matter what for war opponents, “the prescription is always the same: retreat.” He said his decision 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 Basra between government forces and militia fighters, prompting protests in Baghdad by thousands of Iraqis sympathetic to the militias. The Iraqi legislature planned an emergency session for this afternoon in an attempt to end the Basra fighting, during which saboteurs blew up one of Iraq’s two main oil export pipelines.

The upsurge in violence prompted the State Department yesterday to instruct U.S. Embassy personnel in Baghdad to wear protective gear including helmets when they leave the heavily fortified Green Zone.

Mr. Bush, speaking in Dayton, Ohio, at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, said Mr. al-Maliki made a “bold decision” to confront Shi’ite 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 he promised that Mr. al-Maliki’s government forces would prevail, though he said that the “operation’s going to take some time to complete.”

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 on Wednesday that the U.S. military is strained and its troops 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 H. 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 past 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.

Mr. Bush 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’ two-week Easter recess. It is a revolutionary undertaking that requires great courage,” Mr. Bush said.

The president also said that it “makes no sense” to argue for withdrawal from Iraq to focus on Afghanistan.

“If America’s strategic interests are not in Iraq — the convergence point for the twin threats of al Qaeda and Iran, the nation Osama bin Laden’s deputy has called the place for the greatest battle, the country at the heart of the most volatile region on earth — then where are they?” Mr. Bush said.

The White House also said yesterday that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will visit Mr. Bush in May.

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