Bush vows not to withdraw troops from Iraq
RIGA, Latvia -- On the eve of a high-profile trip to Jordan to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, President Bush on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that Iraq had descended into civil war, blamed al-Qaeda for the latest wave of sectarian v...
RIGA, Latvia -- On the eve of a high-profile trip to Jordan to meet Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, President Bush on Tuesday dismissed suggestions that Iraq had descended into civil war, blamed al-Qaeda for the latest wave of sectarian violence and vowed not to withdraw troops "until the mission is complete."
The president's remarks, during a swing through the Baltics that took him from Tallinn, Estonia, on Tuesday morning to Riga for a NATO summit, were his first on Iraq since a series of bombs killed more than 200 people in a Shiite district of Baghdad on Thursday. It was the deadliest attack since the American invasion in 2003, and it was followed by bloody Shiite reprisals.
At a morning news conference with President Toomas Hendrik Ilves of Estonia, Bush, making the first visit to Estonia by a sitting U.S. president, characterized talk of civil war in Iraq as "all kinds of speculation." Foreshadowing his message to al-Maliki, he said he would press the Iraqi prime minister to lay out a strategy for stopping the killings.
"My questions to him will be: 'What do we need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?' " Bush said. "I will assure him that we will continue to pursue al-Qaeda to make sure that they do not establish a safe haven in Iraq."
Bush is in Riga to talk about the other war -- Afghanistan -- which tops the NATO agenda. The alliance, which was formed to protect Europe, now has 32,000 troops in Afghanistan. But Bush wants NATO to commit more troops to the southern region of that country to fend off a resurgence by the Taliban. In a speech at Latvia University, the president warned that terrorists, drug traffickers and warlords "remain active and committed to destroying democracy in Afghanistan."
Yet Iraq, not Afghanistan, is dominating the president's time, casting as heavy a shadow here as it does at home. Democrats, who are about to take control of Congress after midterm elections that were widely viewed as a referendum on the war, are pressing for a phased withdrawal of troops, but Bush held firm against that.
"We'll continue to be flexible and we will make the changes necessary to succeed," he said in Riga. "But there's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull the troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
In part, Bush is laying the foundation to push back against a high-level bipartisan commission, which has been meeting in Washington behind closed doors to review Iraq strategy. Though the panel is reportedly divided on the issue of withdrawal, it is widely expected to recommend greater U.S. engagement with Iraq's neighbors, Iran and Syria, two nations the White House has shunned.
Bush said Tuesday he intended to leave such talks to Iraq, "a sovereign nation which is conducting its own foreign policy."
Today, after lunch with his fellow NATO heads of state, Bush is expected to leave for Amman, Jordan, for two days of meetings with al-Maliki. Experts say that the president must walk a fine line, reassuring al-Maliki while making clear that American patience may wear thin if the prime minister does not tamp down the violence.
"They're probably a little worried right now that if Maliki and others think maybe it's only a matter of time before the administration gets out, the last thing they are going to do is go after militias, because the militias are what they need for protection," said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy for the Clinton and first Bush administrations.