President Bush warned yesterday that the bloodshed and violence by Iraqi extremists will escalate as the country moves into the last phase of its transition over the next three months -- beginning with the referendum on a controversial new constitution on Oct. 15.
"We can expect they'll do everything in their power to try to stop the march of freedom," Bush warned during comments in the Rose Garden about terrorism.
The top U.S. general in Iraq yesterday backed away from his suggestion, as recently as this summer, that the United States could begin a "fairly substantial" withdrawal of troops early next year. "I think, right now, we're in a period of a little greater uncertainty than when I was asked that question back in July and March," Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., who is in charge of combat operations in Iraq, told reporters after a closed-door Senate briefing yesterday.
After talks with Casey and Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, Bush expressed confidence that the U.S.-led campaign to quell Iraq's insurgency can deal with a further escalation. "Our troops are ready for it," he said.
For all the public confidence, however, the Bush administration in private is nervous about this sensitive last stage, which will establish whether Iraq's disparate religious and ethnic factions can stay together in a single nation -- and whether civil war can be avoided, according to U.S. officials and experts on Iraq.
The administration has come under growing pressure at home and abroad over the past two weeks, with dire warnings from Arab allies and a prominent international group about the looming disintegration of Iraq. In an unusual public rebuke of U.S. policy, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister called a news conference in Washington last week to predict Iraq's dissolution. He said there is no leadership or momentum to pull Iraq's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds back together and prevent a civil war. Other countries have expressed similar concerns in private, according to U.S. and Arab diplomats.
With Bush's approval ratings already the lowest of his presidency, the administration is also facing an increasingly visible antiwar movement at home, from a weekend demonstration of about 100,000 people in Washington to a new "Out of Iraq" congressional caucus. The caucus, which has 68 members, all Democrats, is mounting a campaign to withdraw U.S. troops.
"We're building a growing movement against the war in Iraq that will give people who feel uncomfortable about the war a place to share their concerns and discuss and work through a solution -- should it be immediate withdrawal or an exit strategy. We want to build a consensus that we want to get out," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).
This last phase of the political transition has become a flashpoint largely because of Iraq's Sunni minority, which is widely skeptical that Iraq's proposed constitution would protect them or provide equal access to Iraq's oil revenue. Sunnis from Iran and neighboring countries are the main force behind the insurgency.
The precariousness of this final phase was reflected in yesterday's violence. Bush heralded the weekend killing of al Qaeda's second-in-command in Iraq, Abdullah Abu Azzam, as a major break in the hunt for high-value targets loyal to al Qaeda. The U.S.-led coalition, he said, is now "constantly adapting" its targets to the insurgents' shifting tactics.
Bush claimed success in the recent offensive in northwest Tall Afar, an area that has been one of the main routes of foreign extremists crossing from Syria. Iraqi forces for the first time outnumbered U.S. troops in an operation that killed or captured hundreds, he noted.
"Iraqi troops remain in Tall Afar to ensure that terrorists are not allowed to return and regroup," Bush said. "We have a plan to win." Yet in Tall Afar yesterday, the first female suicide bomber blew herself up at an Iraqi army recruiting station, killing at least five civilians and injuring more than 30.
To reassure Sunnis before the vote in two weeks, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad is holding talks daily with Iraqi leaders in a last-ditch effort to work out "refinements" so that Sunnis will be "more comfortable" with the constitution, a senior administration official said.
But Democrats are increasingly critical on Iraq. After the Senate briefing, Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said Iraq is now "perilous" because the administration does not have a "clear plan." "Everyone now realizes that we'll be there indefinitely," he said. Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.) of the Armed Services Committee said yesterday that signs of civil war are now emerging. "We are facing a long struggle with an uncertain outcome," Reed said in a conference call with reporters.
In a push to boost public support for his Iraq policy, Bush will give a speech on Oct. 6. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also will give major foreign policy addresses over the next week.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.