Bush Lays Out Goals for Iraq: Self-Rule and Stability
CARLISLE, Pa., May 24 — President Bush on Monday night sought to reassure Americans, Iraqis and other nations that he has a plan to set Iraq on a track to stable self-rule, saying his goal was to make Iraq's people "free, not to make them American."
The United States, Mr. Bush said, will use a "five-point plan" to hand over authority in Iraq to an interim government on June 30, help establish security, continue rebuilding the country's infrastructure, encourage more international support and then move toward a national Iraqi election as early as next January. He did not announce the names of a new prime minister or other top Iraqi government officials, but promised that they would be released later this week by Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy to Iraq.
In a 33-minute address at the United States Army War College in the farmland of south-central Pennsylvania, the president said: "I sent American troops to Iraq to defend our security, not to stay as an occupying power. I sent American troops to Iraq to make its people free, not to make them American. Iraqis will write their own history, and find their own way."
Mr. Bush said an essential part of rebuilding Iraq would be the creation of a modern prison system. He pledged, if the new Iraqi government agrees, to destroy the Abu Ghraib prison, a longtime symbol of the cruelty of Saddam Hussein's rule and now notorious as the site of abuses of Iraqi prisoners by members of the American military.
In making the case for persevering in Iraq, the president reminded Americans that, in his view, Iraq remained "the central front in the war on terror."
Mr. Bush also held out little hope for a quick withdrawal of American soldiers, and said he would maintain troop levels of 138,000 "as long as necessary." If American commanders on the ground needed more troops, Mr. Bush said, "I will send them."
Mr. Bush's speech, the first in a series of major addresses meant to shore up support for his Iraq policy before the June 30 deadline, was as much a political event as a policy address. It came in the wake of a poll by CBS News that showed Mr. Bush's approval ratings at a new low, with 41 percent approving of the job he is doing and 52 percent disapproving.
The president, who was apparently wearing makeup to cover abrasions on his chin from a fall from his mountain bike last weekend, seemed confident and calm throughout his remarks, which were interrupted periodically by applause. The biggest applause came when Mr. Bush said the United States would raze the Abu Ghraib prison.
His evening speech was scheduled for prime time, but the White House did not ask the broadcast networks to carry it live. Still, it was shown by the cable news channels, and by distributing early excerpts of his prepared text the White House ensured that his remarks were featured on evening news programs viewed by millions.
Recent opinion surveys have shown a serious erosion in support among Americans for Mr. Bush's foreign policy, with only 30 percent in the CBS News survey approving of the way he is handling Iraq. During the past several weeks rebel insurgencies, the beheading of an American, the assassination of an Iraqi leader backed by the United States and the raid on a onetime American friend, Ahmad Chalabi, have shaken American confidence in the venture in Iraq.
The president walked Americans through the details of the transfer of power, all of it pre-existing policy, that he said would help Iraq achieve "democracy and freedom." America's task in Iraq, he said, "is not only to defeat an enemy, it is to give strength to a friend — a free, representative government that serves its people and fights on their behalf. And the sooner this goal is achieved, the sooner our job will be done."
In his remarks, Mr. Bush said he was confident that the United Nations Security Council would adopt a new resolution, introduced Monday by the United States and Britain, that would bestow international recognition on what the administration is calling the "caretaker" government of Iraq to be installed after June 30. The resolution, which is intended to encourage countries to come forward with troops and donations, would set up a multinational force in Iraq authorized by the United Nations, with American troops a part of the force and American commanders in charge.
Mr. Bush outlined a framework for the interim government, which he said would include a prime minister, a president, two vice presidents and 26 ministers who would oversee government departments like defense, justice and health.
Senator John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, reacted to Mr. Bush's speech by saying that the president must turn "words into action" and call on allies for help. "That's going to require the president to genuinely reach out to our allies so that the United States doesn't have to continue to go it alone and to create the stability necessary to allow the people of Iraq to move forward," he said. "That's what our troops deserve, and that's what our country and the world need at this moment."
Until now, Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that they did not plan to close Abu Ghraib prison, although in recent weeks the authorities in Iraq have been rapidly discharging prisoners, aiming to cut the population by about half to fewer than 2,000 inmates.
"Under Saddam Hussein, prisons like Abu Ghraib were symbols of death and torture," Mr. Bush said, speaking to 450 students, faculty members and military officials in the college's Jim Thorpe Hall, a gymnasium named for the athlete who once trained on the grounds here. "That same prison became a symbol of disgraceful conduct by a few American troops who dishonored our country and disregarded our values." A new Iraq, Mr. Bush said, will need "a humane, well-supervised prison system."
The president warned that there would probably be more violence in Iraq, both before and after the June 30 transfer date. "As the Iraqi people move closer to governing themselves, the terrorists are likely to become more active and more brutal," he said. "There are difficult days ahead, and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic."
The president also acknowledged that events on the ground had not gone as the administration had planned.
"The swift removal of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring had an unintended effect," Mr. Bush said. "Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam's elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. These elements of Saddam's repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed, and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics" as they linked up with foreign fighters.
"These groups and individuals have conflicting ambitions, but they share a goal," he said. "They hope to wear out the patience of Americans, our coalition, and Iraqis before the arrival of effective self-government, and before Iraqis have the capability to defend their freedom."
Mr. Bush sought repeatedly to convince his listeners that his administration meant to turn over real power to the Iraqis on June 30, and that the caretaker government would not be a puppet of the United States. He said that the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority will transfer "full sovereignty" to the Iraqis on June 30, and that the authority "will cease to exist and not be replaced."
As he concluded his remarks, Mr. Bush said that "in the last 32 months, history has placed great demands on our country." The United States, he said, "did not seek this war on terror, but this is the world as we find it. We must keep our focus. We must do our duty. History is moving, and it will tend toward hope, or tend toward tragedy."