By Peter Baker and Bradley Graham
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
CHICAGO, May 22 -- President Bush on Monday hailed the formation of a new Iraqi government as a "turning point" that will allow U.S. forces to take an "increasingly supporting role" against insurgents as Washington and London look for ways to disengage from the war.
Acknowledging the "unease" felt by many Americans, Bush said the war in Iraq has proved "more difficult" than expected and has produced only incremental progress. But he said the first government formed under the new, democratic Iraqi constitution will take on more of the burden.
"We can expect the violence to continue, but something fundamental changed this weekend," Bush said in a speech to the National Restaurant Association. "The terrorists are now fighting a free and constitutional government. They're at war with the people of Iraq. And the Iraqi people are determined to defeat this enemy, and so are Iraq's new leaders, and so is the United States of America."
Bush did not say when the shift to a supporting role would permit U.S. troops to come home, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad on Monday and announced that he will fly to Washington to consult with the president Thursday and Friday about the next steps. The British have drawn down their forces by about 10 percent in the past two months, and officials have said they hope to make "good progress" toward a handover in the next year.
Bush has set a goal of turning most of Iraq over to Iraqi security forces by the end of the year, a target repeated on Monday by the newly installed prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. But U.S. and British officials dismissed a London newspaper report that Bush and Blair plan to announce a specific drawdown of forces in Iraq.
A British Defense Ministry spokeswoman called it "speculative" and said, "We will draw down when conditions for the handover are met." A senior U.S. official told reporters not to expect a "fixed number" of cuts to emerge from the Bush-Blair meeting.
Some Democrats insisted they should set a concrete plan for withdrawal. "Our soldiers have done their job," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), his party's 2004 presidential nominee. "Now it's time for the Iraqis to do theirs. We must immediately begin working with the new Iraqi government on a schedule for withdrawing American combat forces by the end of this year."
Pentagon authorities have spoken for months of plans to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq by 30,000 by the end of the year, which would bring the number of American troops in the country to about 100,000. Britain has been downscaling its presence from 8,000 troops and should have 7,200 left in a week or so, the Defense Ministry said. But both governments have rejected firm timetables and said reductions will depend on improvements in security.
Citing the formation of the new cabinet and Maliki's emphasis on tackling problems of security, corruption and basic services, the senior U.S. official said that some conditions in Iraq "are moving in the right direction." At the same time, the official sought to lower expectations about the new government's ability to quickly curb ethnic militias behind much of the violence.
"I would not expect to see an immediate decrease in the violence," said the official, who briefed on the condition of anonymity. "If you look at the pattern of violence over the past few years, there's generally been an uptick in violence after significant political events."
In his speech here, Bush tried to balance optimism with concessions of mistakes. "Yet we have now reached a turning point in the struggle between freedom and terror," he said. He noted that the new Iraqi parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, once opposed the U.S. military presence. "He wouldn't have taken my phone call a year ago," Bush said. "He's now taken it twice." He added: "As the new Iraqi government grows in confidence and capability, America will play an increasingly supportive role."
In a question-and-answer session after his speech, Bush was asked about public disconnect from the government. "I would say that there's an unease in America now," he said, "and the reason why is because we're at war. And war is more difficult. . . . Our progress is incremental. Freedom is moving, but it's in incremental steps. And the enemy's progress is almost instant on their TV screen."
Bush has declared turning points and milestones in the war before. He called it "an important milestone" when a temporary governing council was formed in July 2003 and "a turning point" when sovereignty was turned over to the interim government in June 2004. Elections in January 2005, he said, were both "a turning point in the history of Iraq" and "a milestone in the advance of freedom."
He called it a "milestone" in October when Iraqi voters approved a constitution and "a major milestone" two months later when they elected a parliament -- a moment he also termed "a turning point in the history of Iraq, the history of the Middle East and the history of freedom." The selection of a prime minister last month was "an important milestone toward our victory in Iraq" and, a week later, "a turning point for the Iraqi citizens."
Bush addressed other topics here, including immigration, energy and tax cuts. He voiced concern about "the erosion of democracy" in Venezuela and Bolivia. And he poked fun at Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), his brother. When a Florida restaurateur praised the governor for supporting her industry, the president interjected, "He has been eating a lot, I noticed."
Asked if he plans to see "An Inconvenient Truth," the new film on global warming featuring Al Gore, Bush smiled. "Doubt it," he said.
Graham reported from Washington. Correspondent Mary Jordan in London contributed to this report.