Standing side by side in the White House Rose Garden, President Bush and Iraq's interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, today presented an optimistic picture of Iraq's efforts to build a stable democracy, vowing that elections would go ahead as scheduled in January despite opposition from insurgents and terrorists who they said represent only a tiny minority of the population.
In response to questions about criticism of his Iraq policy from Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, Bush said a U.S. president must be consistent and that "sending mixed messages" can embolden terrorist enemies, discourage the Iraqi people and undermine the morale of American troops.
While striking a common theme of steadfastness and resolution in the face of what both Bush and Allawi described as an Iraqi front line in the global war on terrorism, the two men appeared to differ somewhat on the prospect of sending more U.S. troops to Iraq.
Asked about reported remarks on the subject by Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East, Bush said he had met with Abizaid this morning and heard no such request from him. But he said that if U.S. commanders feel they need more troops in Iraq, he would consider sending them.
Allawi said that "we don't need" more foreign troops in Iraq. "What we need really is to train more Iraqis because this is ultimately for Iraqis, for Iraqi security forces to take responsibility for their own security and to defend the rest of the civilized world."
After an appearance before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday, Abizaid said he was "comfortable" with current U.S. troop levels in Iraq and that he would request reinforcements if he believed more troops were needed. He acknowledged that security in Iraq would have to improve before democratic elections could be held in January.
"I think we will need more troops" to make the elections secure, Abizaid said. "But it is my belief that it will be Iraqi troops and other international troops . . . not more American troops."
In prepared remarks as he and Allawi faced reporters in the Rose Garden, Bush said, "Iraq is a central front in the war on terror, and our only option is victory."
Allawi said his country "is now the main battleground between the forces of hope and the forces of fear" and that his government's "political plan is to isolate the terrorists from the communities in which they operate."
Allawi said, "Working together, we will defeat the killers, and we'll do this by refusing to bargain about our most fundamental principles." He said he understands that there are people who doubt his government can succeed and that "there will be many more setbacks and obstacles to overcome." He added: "But these doubters underestimate our country, and they risk fueling the hopes of terrorism."
Allawi said the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah west of Baghdad represents "only a small part of Iraq," and he asserted that at least 14 of the country's 18 provinces "are completely safe."
Bush said in response to questions during the 45-minute session that the U.S. task in Iraq is "hard work," but that "we will stay the course."
"And I believe a leader must be consistent and clear, and not change positions when times get tough," Bush said. "And the times have been hard. These are hard times. But I understand that -- what mixed messages do. You can embolden an enemy by sending mixed message. You can dispirit the Iraqi people by sending mixed messages. You send the wrong message to our troops by sending mixed messages. That's why I will continue to lead with clarity in a resolute way. . . ."
Earlier today, Allawi addressed a joint session of Congress and said that holding the elections as scheduled would prove wrong all the "skeptics" and "doubters" who have predicted delay because of mounting violence and instability.