Security, democratic reforms to highlight Bush meeting with Iraq

Saturday, June 25, 2005

WASHINGTON -- President Bush assured Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari on Friday "there are not going to be any timetables" for withdrawal of American forces and vowed victory over insurgents attempting to prevent establishment of a democratic government under a new constitution.

"This is not the time to fall back," al-Jaafari concurred at a joint news conference at the White House.

Speaking of the insurgents, he said, "There's no question there's an enemy that still wants to shake our will and get us to leave. ...They try to kill and they do kill innocent Iraqi people, women and children because they know that the carnage that they reap will be on TV and they know that it bothers people to see death.

"And it does. It bothers me. It bothers American citizens. It bothers Iraqis," Bush said.

The two men fielded questions after receiving a briefing from the top commanders overseeing the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Bush said setting a timetable for withdrawal of the American forces would only prompt the insurgents to "wait us out."

He said he would stay the course in Iraq despite public opinion polls showing dwindling support for his policy. He indicated his awareness of his domestic critics when a reporter began asking a question about whether he was concerned about a "slump" in his support.

"Quagmire?" the president asked, employing a word that some Democrats in Congress have begun to use to describe the military presence in Iraq one year after the transfer of sovereignty.

His visitor, al-Jaafari, seemed to recognize the domestic pressure on the president.

"You have given us something more than money," said al-Jaafari, who visited wounded American troops on Thursday night at a military hospital in the capital. "You have given us a lot of your sons, your children, that were killed beside our own children in Iraq ... This is more precious than any other kind of support we received."

More than 1,700 American troops have died in Iraq, the majority of them since the end of hostilities aimed at toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. There have been 479 car bombs in Iraq since the handover of sovereignty on June 28, 2004, according to an Associated Press count.

Freedom of the press Iraqi-style was on display when a reporter who said he was a presenter on radio in Iraq asked when reconstruction would begin in the wartorn country.

Bush said he didn't want to be "passing the buck," but looked at al-Jaafari and said "they're in charge," meaning the Iraqis.

In opening remarks, Bush said "The enemy's goal is to drive us out of Iraq before the Iraqis have established a secure democratic government. They will not succeed."

On Thursday, al-Jaafari confidently predicted that a constitution to guide his country toward democracy would be concluded by the end of August and then ratified in a popular referendum.

"We are going to do it within two months," al-Jaafari said as he inspected the U.S. Constitution in the dimly lit, cool rotunda of the National Archives. Asked if it would be approved by the Iraqi people in the fall, he replied, "Yes."

In the meantime, the U.S.-led multinational force must stay in Iraq until Iraqi forces are fully prepared to defend the country by themselves, al-Jaafari said.

Setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces would be a sign of weakness, he said. "The country would be open to increased terrorist activity," he told the private Council on Foreign Relations.

However, the International Crisis Group, a private advocacy group based in Brussels, Belgium, recommended the drafting deadline be extended for six months, or to next February, "to allow for public education and broad cosultation."

Writing a constitution is critical to the country's stability, the report said.

Al-Jaafari made a stop at the White House on Thursday to review strategy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. He went to the archives, met with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill and visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center to express gratitude to U.S. troops wounded in his country.

The White House meeting was held against the backdrop of growing concern among Americans about an engagement that has claimed the lives of more than 1,700 American troops.

Foreign policy had typically given Bush his highest scores with the public, but that has changed. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month found just 41 percent of adults supported his handling of the Iraq war, a new low.

There have been 479 car bombs in Iraq since the handover of sovereignty on June 28, 2004, according to an AP count. At least 2,174 people have been killed and 5,520 have been wounded.

Continued bloodshed underscores comments from the top American commander in the Persian Gulf, who told lawmakers on Thursday that the Iraqi insurgency has not grown weaker over the past six months.

"I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Gen. John Abizaid said during a contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "There's a lot of work to be done against the insurgency."

The testimony undercut Vice President Dick Cheney's recent assertion that the insurgency was in its "last throes."

AP Diplomatic Writer Barry Schweid contributed to this report.

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