Even as his name echoes in Washington as one of the most likely Supreme Court candidates, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales landed in war-torn Iraq on Sunday for an unannounced visit with some of the hundreds of Justice Department employees stationed here.
In an interview with The Washington Post on his way to the Iraqi capital, Gonzales said he would continue to be directly involved in making recommendations to President Bush for a possible successor to retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. But Gonzales, a close friend and longtime confidant to Bush, declined to comment on his own chances or interest in the post.
"There will be a group of people who will share their thoughts with the president about a nominee, and obviously I am part of those discussions," Gonzales said. "But I'm not going to talk about the details of those discussions or the recommendations or anything like that . . . I think the president is going to be deliberative in his decision."
Although Bush may "take some time" to make a final call, Gonzales added, the president is adamant that a new justice be confirmed by October. The interviews with The Post and the Associated Press en route to Baghdad were Gonzales's first comments about the high court since O'Connor resigned Friday.
The trip is the first to Iraq by the top U.S. law enforcement officer since the Iraq invasion more than two years ago. Gonzales, who took the post in February, nearly had to cancel the final leg of his trip because helicopters were grounded by sandstorms and the road from the Baghdad airport to the U.S.-controlled Green Zone remains very dangerous.
About 500 Justice Department employees are stationed in Iraq, including some 400 contractors. About 60 FBI agents and analysts also are stationed here.
In meetings with U.S. and Iraqi officials, Gonzales announced plans to form a joint U.S.-Iraq task force to focus on an increasing number of violent crimes, including beheadings and kidnappings, that continue to go unsolved.
"One of the most important ways to fight terrorism is to promote democracy, and one of the most important ways to promote democracy is the rule of law," Gonzales said in the interview.
Gonzales, who spent about seven hours in Baghdad, also met with the prime minister, Ibrahim Jafari, and the interior minister, Bayan Jabr.
Gonzales, 49, has worked with Bush since his days as Texas governor and came to Washington as Bush's White House counsel in 2001. After a bruising confirmation battle for the attorney general post in which Gonzales came under fire from Democrats over detainee abuses, a Gonzales nomination to the Supreme Court would likely face opposition from conservative Republicans who dislike his previous positions on such issues as abortion and affirmative action.
Some of Bush's allies in the Senate and elsewhere rebuked conservative critics of Gonzales as a potential nominee. Several activist groups have said Gonzales is not tough enough in his stands against abortion and other matters, but Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) called the allegations "pure bunk." Hatch, a senior Judiciary Committee member, told CBS's "Face the Nation" that Gonzales "is a terrific human being, a good lawyer" who would do well on the court.
"But some of the right-wing groups, of course, are trying to push the president into getting the most conservative person that they can get, and they don't consider Judge Gonzales to be as conservative as some of the others," Hatch said. "But, I can tell you, he's a person of integrity . . . and if he gets picked, I'm certainly going to support him."
Speaking on ABC's "This Week," Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said: "I know Al Gonzales, and he's a good man. And he's doing an outstanding job as attorney general. But at this point, we're all engaged in a lot of speculation as to who the nominee might be, and we may all be wrong." Cornyn has also been mentioned as a potential nominee.
Justice aides said Gonzales's unannounced trip to Iraq -- which was held under wraps for security reasons until he was safely in the Green Zone -- had been planned for some time and was not connected to the Supreme Court vacancy.
The department's Office of Legal Policy is the main branch within the Justice Department that is vetting and researching potential candidates for the high court. But preparations for a Supreme Court vacancy began at the start of Bush's first term, and Gonzales -- first as White House counsel and now as attorney general -- has been at the center of most of those discussions.
When asked whether he would accept the high court nomination if it was offered to him, Gonzales just smiled. "I love being attorney general," he said.
In a brief address to Justice and Defense department personnel, Gonzales said: "I'm here to tell you that you're not alone, that the American people are very much with you. I want you to know that we're thinking about you, we miss you and we look forward to the day that you can come home."
Staff writers Charles Babington and Susan Schmidt in Washington contributed to this report.