By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
President Bush warned Americans yesterday that they can expect to see more violence in Iraq over the next year but called this the price of progress as the country stands up its own security forces and moves toward democracy.
Speaking to members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush said that in the coming weeks Iraq is likely to be the scene of "a good deal of political turmoil" as factions jockey for position and vie for power. Rather than being alarmed by those developments, he said, "we should welcome this for what it is: freedom in action."
"Out of the turmoil in Iraq, a free government will emerge that represents the will of the Iraqi people, instead of the will of one cruel dictator," Bush said.
The president's remarks to 425 people at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington came during a time of surging violence in Iraq, where more than 200 Iraqis and 16 U.S. troops have been killed since last Wednesday. It also marked the latest in a series of speeches he has given since December, aimed at more specifically outlining his administration's strategy for Iraq and spotlighting progress there, while sketching a balanced picture of what it will take to earn victory in the unpopular war.
With federal midterm elections later this year, Bush said he expects Iraq to be a continuing source of political contention. But, in a thinly veiled warning to his Democratic critics, he called on voters to demand a responsible debate "that brings credit to our democracy, not comfort to our enemies."
"The American people know the difference between responsible and irresponsible debate when they see it," he said. "They know the difference between honest critics who question the way the war is being prosecuted and partisan critics who claim that we acted in Iraq because of oil, or because of Israel or because we misled the American people."
The president also called on nations and international organizations that pledged money to help rebuild Iraq to follow through on their promises. Speaking to reporters later, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that very little of the $13 billion pledged for Iraq reconstruction during a 2003 donors conference in Madrid has been collected -- something Bush wants to change.
"Iraqis are grateful for this promised aid. So is the United States," Bush said. "Yet, many nations have been slow to make good on their commitments." He also asked nations to write off debt owed by Iraq and to release assets frozen under the government of Saddam Hussein. "I call on all nations to return these assets to their rightful owners: the free people of Iraq who own those assets, not foreign governments," he said.
In his remarks, Bush said that over the next year U.S. military commanders plan to focus more closely on preparing Iraqi police, whose training has been lagging. Part of that will involve training on human rights and ethics, a move being made in response to evidence that some Iraqi police officers had abused citizens to settle old scores.
"That's unacceptable," Bush said of the abuse reports. "That's unacceptable to the United States government; it's unacceptable to the Iraqi government, as well."
As the year progresses, Bush said the United States will be able to reduce troop levels in Iraq as Iraqi security forces take control of more of the country. "We will continue to hand over territory to the Iraqis so they can defend their democracy, so they can do the hard work, and our troops will be able to come home with the honor they have earned," he said.
Bush also repeated previous Pentagon assertions that by spring troop levels in Iraq would be reduced to several thousand below the pre-election baseline of 138,000. Those cuts would come in addition to the decrease of 20,000 troops who were in the country largely to provide security during the December elections.
Any further troop reductions, he said, would come as a result of consultations with Iraqi leaders and will be contingent on the progress of both Iraqi security forces and the stability of the newly elected government. "All my decisions will be based upon conditions on the ground," Bush said.
The president acknowledged that reconstruction in Iraq has moved slowly, as terrorists have focused on strategic targets for repeated attacks. Both oil and electricity production in the country are below prewar levels, and restoring those services remains one of the biggest challenges facing Iraq.
Despite that, Bush said that most Iraqis are upbeat about the future: "The vast majority of Iraqis prefer freedom with intermittent power to life in the permanent darkness of tyranny and terror."