President Bush said yesterday that Iraq is on the verge of creating a diverse government that respects the country's deep religious and ethnic divisions, despite the turmoil and delays.
While the president was speaking optimistically about Iraq's future, first lady Laura Bush flew to Afghanistan to award $21 million in education grants as part of the U.S. effort to spread democracy in Muslim countries.
At a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Bush surrounded himself with Iraqis who voted in the January elections to proclaim the second official meeting of the fledgling Iraqi parliament yesterday as evidence that "freedom is on the march." He did not specifically discuss the bitter disputes between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions that surfaced at yesterday's meeting, which are complicating efforts to choose a speaker and get the new government up and running.
Any differences, Bush said, "will be resolved through debate and persuasion instead of force and intimidation." While Iraqis are debating the specifics of the new government, Bush said political leaders there "are determined that the government will be representative of their country's diverse population." Sunni Arabs, a minority that did poorly in the January elections, have complained about being left out of a process dominated by the majority Shiite population.
The new nationally elected assembly plans on writing a constitution by October and holding new elections by year's end.
Problems aside, Bush said the Iraqis are a "positive example" to others in the Middle East and are inspiring others who desire democracy to pursue it though protest, elections and governmental reforms. Iraqis are also moving forward on efforts to train enough security forces to eventually ease the way for the United States to draw down its 150,000 troops in the country, the president said. More than 1,500 Americans have died in Iraq since the March 2003 invasion.
A few hours before Bush spoke, Laura Bush announced she was departing for Afghanistan to meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speak to U.S. troops and award a $17.7 million grant to the American University of Afghanistan and $3.5 million to an elementary school there.
"When I really realized the plight of the women under the Taliban, I also found that American women really stand in solidarity with the women in Afghanistan," the first lady told reporters before leaving Washington. "I'm delighted to be able to bring that message to Afghanistan. This has been in the planning for quite some time. I didn't tell anyone." She will spend about five hours on the ground in Afghanistan.
At a time when the administration is trying to emphasize what it considers foreign policy successes, especially in its efforts to spread democracy, Laura Bush said she will tell Karzai: "Just that America stands with the people of Afghanistan and how moved we are by their efforts, by the big huge vote that turned out earlier this year, how the American people are standing with the people of Afghanistan as they rebuild their country from years and years of war but also build a democracy for the first time in their history."
The first lady was accompanied by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.