Bush, on War's Anniversary, Calls on World to Fight Terror

Posted in Terrorism | 21-Mar-04 | Source: The New York Times

WASHINGTON, March 19 — President Bush sought to rally support on Friday for what he called an inescapable battle with terrorism, telling representatives of 83 nations that they can afford no concession, no sign of weakness and no division.

On the first anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq — a conflict that his critics say weakened the alliances the United States now needs more than ever — Mr. Bush said the quarrels over how to handle Saddam Hussein should be put in the past. The world might better focus its efforts on bringing peace and democracy to the Middle East and choking off the forces that breed fanaticism, he said.

"There is no neutral ground — no neutral ground — in the fight between civilization and terror, because there is no neutral ground between good and evil, freedom and slavery and life and death," Mr. Bush said.

Among those attending were the ambassadors from France and Germany, which opposed the invasion of Iraq, and from Spain, which suffered a terrorist bombing last week.

Spanish voters subsequently elected a new government that said it would withdraw its 1,300 troops from Iraq unless the mission there was put under United Nations auspices, raising alarms in political circles here and in Europe.

But Mr. Bush was also addressing a domestic audience, as his re-election campaign seeks to paint his Democratic rival, Senator John Kerry, as weak on defense.

"The war on terror is not a figure of speech," Mr. Bush said. "It is an inescapable calling of our generation. The terrorists are offended not merely by our policies — they are offended by our existence as free nations. No concession will appease their hatred. No accommodation will satisfy their endless demands."

A year after giving the go-ahead for the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush made only a fleeting reference to the primary justification he had used — Mr. Hussein's supposed possession of chemical and biological weapons and his efforts to acquire a nuclear bomb. No banned weapons have been found in Iraq since the war.

Mr. Bush instead emphasized on Friday that success in stabilizing Iraq and nursing it toward democracy was an integral part of the broader effort to defeat militant Islam. He also sought to head off any further defections from the coalition he assembled to provide military, humanitarian and financial support there.

"Whatever their past views, every nation now has an interest in a free, successful, stable Iraq," Mr. Bush said. "And the terrorists understand their own interest in the fate of that country. For them, the connection between Iraq's future and the course of the war on terror is very clear: They understand that a free Iraq will be a devastating setback to their ambitions of tyranny over the Middle East."

To try to withdraw from the battle, in Iraq or anywhere else, Mr. Bush suggested, would be futile and counterproductive.

"Any sign of weakness or retreat simply validates terrorist violence, and invites more violence for all nations," he said. "The only certain way to protect our people is by early, united and decisive action."

The speech was delivered in somber tones, a sharp contrast to the campaign-style events this year in which Mr. Bush has addressed the war and national security. At this gathering of diplomats, even his most forceful lines were met with silence. Applause came only after he completed the address.

The subdued atmosphere reflected lingering diplomatic and political tensions and the backdrop of continued killing in Iraq. The Pentagon has identified 571 American service members who have died since the start of the war, and bombings and other attacks by insurgents have claimed a mounting toll of Iraqis and military personnel and civilians from other nations.

Before delivering the speech, Mr. Bush spoke by telephone to President Alexander Kwasniewski of Poland and President Jacques Chirac of France.

Mr. Kwasniewski was quoted on Thursday as saying he had been "misled" over the presence of banned weapons in Iraq. He assured Mr. Bush that Poland would maintain its military presence in Iraq as long as necessary to achieve stability, said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. Mr. McClellan also pointed to a subsequent statement from the Polish government saying Mr. Kwasniewski had been referring to Mr. Hussein when he said the world had been misled over Iraq's banned weapons.

Mr. Bush told Mr. Chirac that he would visit France on June 6 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of D-Day, Mr. McClellan said.

The invasion of Iraq and its implications for the broader effort to combat terrorism remain one of the main points of division between Mr. Bush and Senator Kerry, whom the president did not mention in his speech.

Mr. Kerry issued a statement summarizing his differences on the issue with Mr. Bush. He said the president had not done enough to build an international coalition, had failed to plan for what would happen after the combat ended, misled the American people about the presence of banned weapons and refused to make clear how expensive the war and its aftermath would be.

From the beginning, Mr. Kerry said, "this president didn't tell the truth about the war."

In a conference call with reporters after Mr. Bush's speech, Samuel R. Berger, who was President Bill Clinton's national security adviser and is advising Mr. Kerry on foreign policy, said the senator "has made it absolutely clear that we cannot fail" in stabilizing Iraq because "the stakes are simply too high."

But he added that the positive development of removing Mr. Hussein from power had "come at a very high price" and that the world was not necessarily safer.

"It is true that the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq have converged as the external and internal forces seek to drive us out, and they can't be permitted to do that," Mr. Berger said. "But it's increasingly clear that how we conducted the war in Iraq — hurried, alone and not prepared for the day after — made the terrorism problem more difficult."

After the speech, Mr. Bush went to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. He saw about 20 soldiers, Mr. McClellan said, and awarded eight Purple Hearts.