President Bush will lay out details of the U.S. plan for the Iraq transition at a major speech Monday in a bid to counter mounting public anxiety over the escalating violence and uncertainty less than six weeks before the handover of political power in Baghdad, according to U.S. officials.
Beginning with Monday's address at the Army War College, Bush will give a major speech on Iraq every week through June 30, when the U.S.-led coalition is due to turn over limited authority to a new interim Iraqi government. "We're entering a critical phase, and the president will be speaking out each week to discuss with the American people, and the world, the way forward in Iraq," said a White House official.
"Some speeches will have more details than others, and will be given at different places and times. All have the important goal of explaining the essential tasks at hand and the significance of June 30," the official added.
After discussions with his top foreign policy team and a Cabinet meeting to go over strategy, Bush conceded that the United States faces "hard work" in the weeks ahead but insisted that the administration is making "a lot of progress." U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi is expected to name the new interim government -- including a president, prime minister, two vice presidents and more than two dozen cabinet ministers -- within the next two weeks, he told reporters.
"I told my Cabinet we've got hard work to do. After all, we saw the vivid savagery of the enemy. The decapitation of a U.S. citizen reminds us all about the barbaric nature of those who are trying to stop progress toward freedom," Bush told reporters, referring to the slaying of Nicholas Berg.
Yet U.S. officials are increasingly concerned about the backlash at home and abroad from a string of recent setbacks, most recently the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the assassination of the Iraqi Governing Council president and the attack yesterday that killed more than 40 people. Iraq and Arab media reported that the victims were at a wedding party.
"As we get closer to the transfer of sovereignty, a lot of people are nervous as a result of violence they see in Iraq every day and wild speculation about what may or may not happen next. From our point of view, there's remarkable consistency and there's a useful purpose in repeating what is guiding our actions and our commitment to Iraq and Iraqis. It's important in light of ongoing developments to get across that message and provide a steadying hand," said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
In his first speech, Bush will discuss the transfer of sovereignty -- and what it means -- plus the new U.N. resolution that the United States and Britain will seek next month before the transfer of power, U.S. officials say. "He also wants to talk about what we're prepared to do for the Iraqis and the importance of staying the course," the official said.
A major point of contention between the United States and key U.N. members is the amount of power the United States will retain after June 30, because Washington will still provide advisers for Iraqi ministries and about 135,000 U.S. troops will be in charge of providing security in Iraq and training new Iraqi police and security forces.
In another sign of the developing campaign to win wider support for the U.S. strategy, Bush is also considering meeting in New York with the U.N. Security Council and senior representatives of countries in the U.S.-led coalition, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters after meeting with Bush.
The meeting would help bestow legitimacy on the new Iraqi government and generate international cooperation in the next phase of the transition between July 1 and January 2005, when Iraqis will go to the polls for the first time to elect a national assembly, Berlusconi added.
Last night, a White House official would only say that it is an "idea being discussed."