Despite frustrations, Bush stays firm on Iraq

Posted in United States | 22-Aug-06 | Author: Brian Knowlton| Source: International Herald Tribune

US President George W. Bush has said he was worried that Iraq might slip into civil war but forcefully rejected calls for an immediate US withdrawal, saying that would be a "disaster."
WASHINGTON President George W. Bush acknowledged Monday that he had felt frustrated at times over slow progress in Iraq, but insisted that he would never agree to withdraw U.S. forces until the country was stabilized.

He said that to do so "would be a huge mistake - it would send an unbelievably terrible signal."

But Bush, who has steadily modulated his earlier optimism on Iraq, took note of the sharp debate in the United States over the war, addressed the question of whether Iraqis were now engaged in civil war, and predicted that Iraq would become a major electoral issue this fall.

And in a rare acknowledgment, for him, that Americans were not always standing up well to the pressures of war and terrorism, the president said that conflicts and threats were "straining the psyche of our country."

In an hourlong news conference, Bush called for urgent efforts to assemble a robust international peacekeeping force for Lebanon and denied, despite recent setbacks, that the truce might be "falling apart."

"I think the strategy can work so long as the force is robust and the rules of engagement are clear," he said.

Bush promised additional U.S. reconstruction aid to Lebanon and asked for France to contribute more peacekeeping troops.

He said a new UN resolution would help guide that force. But he also acknowledged that the disarming of Hezbollah might take time.

He also said that he hoped that the United Nations Security Council would move quickly to impose sanctions if Iran continued to defy UN calls for it to halt its nuclear enrichment program.

But Iraq appeared to be particularly on his mind, and on those of his questioners, after weeks in which it had been partly eclipsed by the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Asked whether worsening violence in Iraq did not require a new strategy, Bush said that "the strategic objective is to help this government succeed," and that this would not change.

If "we leave before the mission is done," he said, "the terrorists will follow us here."

A recent news report quoted private policy experts who attended a closed meeting with Bush as having said that he had expressed surprise at a perceived Iraqi ingratitude for outside help, and frustration at the pace of progress.

"Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated, rarely surprised," he said. "But war's not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times. These are challenging times. And they're difficult times. And they're straining the psyche of our country."

For at least one Democrat, that candid comment offered an opening.

"The American psyche isn't the problem," said Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate, whom Bush defeated. "The problem is this administration's disastrous Iraq policy."

Setbacks in Iraq have left Bush with sagging approval ratings. Perhaps more worrying to his Republican Party, a growing number of conservative commentators have questioned Bush's open-ended involvement there.

But on balance, Republican strategists still see national security issues as strong points for the party. Some Republican candidates have portrayed Democrats as incapable of protecting the country and even unpatriotic for questioning administration security policies.

Bush said that he would never question the war critics' patriotism, but that he believed they were flatly wrong.

"There are a lot of good, decent people saying, 'Get out now. Vote for me,'" Bush said.

He added, "Leaving Iraq before the mission is complete will send the wrong message to the enemy and will create a more dangerous world."

Bush also addressed suggestions that Iraq was nearing a state of civil war.

"I hear a lot of talk about civil war," Bush said. "I'm concerned about that, of course." But he said that most Iraqis he had met "want a unified country."

It seemed noteworthy that Bush himself raised the question of civil war. Until recently, the administration had avoided such language, apparently seeing it as implying a conflict that is bloodier than anticipated and one that outsiders cannot win.

On Aug. 3, General John Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, told a Senate committee that if strife were not contained, "Iraq could move towards civil war." And on Sunday, Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican and frequent war critic, said that the conflict might now constitute a civil war.

On another subject, the president said that he had spoken Monday to President Hu Jintao of China about reviving the six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear program.

Bush generally appeared relaxed.

At one point, as questioners impatiently waved their hands, he apologized, saying, "I'm kind of getting old, and you know, just getting into my peroration."

To quizzical looks from reporters unaccustomed to such vocabulary from the plain-spoken president, he said wryly, "Look it up."