Bush Praises New Iraqi Leadership
Monday, May 1, 2006; 1:57 PM
President Bush today called the selection of Iraq's new leaders "a turning point" for the country and hailed their dedication to a "unified Iraq" with a government representing all its people.
After a meeting in the White House with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who briefed Bush this morning on their surprise joint trip to Iraq last week, the president said the country's new prime minister and other top officials are "more determined than ever to succeed."
But he indicated that the secretaries' assessment had not been entirely positive, and he predicted "more tough days ahead" in Iraq as U.S. and Iraqi government forces battle a tenacious insurgency.
In Philadelphia, meanwhile, a top Senate Democrat on foreign policy urged a sharp break from previous administration strategy, recommending that Iraq be divided into separate regions run by the three main ethnic and religious groups.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a speech at the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia that the United States should support establishment of "three largely autonomous regions" for the Kurdish, Sunni Muslim Arab and Shiite Muslim populations, "with a viable but limited central government in Baghdad" responsible for border control, foreign affairs and oil revenues.
He said this "decentralization" should be accompanied by a substantial withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by 2008, leaving behind a residual force of about 20,000 to fight foreign terrorists.
Biden said he developed the plan with Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. The two described the plan in a joint op-ed piece published today in the New York Times.
The White House promptly rejected the ideas.
The administration supports a "federal, democratic, pluralist and unified" Iraq, presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said. "A partition government with regional security forces and a weak central government . . . is something that no Iraqi leader has proposed and that the Iraqi people have not supported."
Flanked by Rice and Rumsfeld as he addressed reporters outside the White House, Bush said he sent the two secretaries to Iraq last week to demonstrate support for the newly chosen prime minister, Jawad al-Maliki, the new speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Meshhedani, and for President Jalal Talabani. Maliki is a member of Iraq's Shiite majority, Meshhedani is a Sunni Arab, and Talabani, who retains his post from the previous government, is a Kurd.
Rice and Rumsfeld brought back "interesting impressions from the three new leaders," Bush said. "They said they were optimistic people, that they're full of energy and they're very eager to succeed." Bush described the Iraqi leaders "are dedicated to a unified Iraq" and to a government that represents all Iraqis.
"This new government is going to represent a new start for the Iraqi people," Bush said. He said the three Iraqi leaders told Rice and Rumsfeld of their need to deploy Iraqi security forces "in such a way as to defeat the terrorists and the insurgents" and to "establish control over the militias and other unauthorized armed groups and enforce the rule of law." He said the United States would support those efforts.
"A new Iraqi government represents a strategic opportunity for America -- and the whole world, for that matter," Bush said. "We believe this is a turning point for the Iraqi citizens, and it's a new chapter in our partnership."
His May Day comments came three years to the day after he stood on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln beneath a banner saying, "Mission Accomplished," and proclaimed, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
The new Iraqi leadership was announced after four months of wrangling that followed parliamentary elections in December. The formation of a government of national unity has been seen in Washington as a vital step in curbing Iraq's insurgency, which is fueled largely by disaffected Sunnis.
Acknowledging the difficulties in Iraq, Bush said, "There's going to be more tough days ahead." He said Rice and Rumsfeld are "realistic people" and gave him "an assessment of what they saw on the ground" during their one-day trip, in which they remained largely in the heavily fortified Baghdad enclave known as the Green Zone and stayed overnight before returning to Washington.
Bush said of the assessment that "some of it's positive and, obviously, there's some difficult days ahead because there's still terrorists there who are willing to take innocent life in order to stop the progress of democracy."
But the new Iraqi government "is more determined than ever to succeed, and we believe we've got partners to help the Iraqi people realize their dreams," Bush said.
In his speech in Philadelphia, however, Biden said the "hard truth" is that Bush "does not have a strategy for victory in Iraq. His strategy is to prevent defeat and to hand the problem off to his successor. Meanwhile, the frustration of Americans is mounting so fast that Congress might end up mandating a rapid withdrawal, even at the risk of trading a dictator for chaos, and a civil war that could become a regional war. Both are bad alternatives."
To stem "a rising tide of sectarian violence" and "create the conditions for our troops to responsibly withdraw," Biden said, he is proposing a plan that is "not partition" but is "consistent with the new unity government."
Drawing on the experience of Bosnia after bloody strife marked by "ethnic cleansing," Biden said, Iraq can maintain its unity by decentralizing, with regional Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite governments "responsible for administering their own regions."
Under the plan, "Baghdad would become a federal zone, while densely-populated areas with mixed populations would receive both multi-sectarian and international police protection," Biden said. He added that such a solution "won't end the Sunni insurgency, but it should help to undermine it."
Biden called for a "responsible" drawdown of U.S. forces, with almost all of them out by 2008. "We would maintain in or near Iraq a small residual force -- perhaps 20,000 troops -- to strike any concentration of terrorists, help keep Iraq's neighbors honest and train its security forces," he said.
"Some will ask whether this plan will lead to sectarian cleansing," Biden said. "The answer is that it's already happening." He said the plan he developed with Gelb would "prevent more cleansing" and improve security in the cities.