WASHINGTON – President Bush served notice Friday that he intends to hold fast to his plans for Iraq, promising Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari that “there are not going to be any timetables” for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
In a joint appearance with al-Jaafari at the White House, Bush declared that he would not be guided by polls showing shrinking American support for the war.
“My job is to set an agenda, and to lead toward that agenda,” he said.
Al-Jaafari concurred: “This is not the time to fall back.”
The declarations by the two leaders came as U.S. lawmakers of both political parties have expressed growing concern about the uncertain future of the war, and as some have urged the White House to begin making plans to bring it to an end. Their anxiety was underscored by a recent wave of violence in Iraq, including record numbers of car bombings and an attack late Thursday that killed at least two Marines and wounded 13 others.
The White House has responded with an aggressive campaign to win public support, including media interviews, a contentious appearance Thursday before Congress by Pentagon officials, and plans for a presidential address Tuesday from Fort Bragg, N.C., to defend the U.S. mission in Iraq.
Public support for Bush’s handling of the war is the lowest ever, recent polls show. A new AP-Ipsos survey released Friday showed 53 percent of Americans now believe the war was a mistake, the highest level of opposition found so far. In December 2003, nine months after the U.S.-led invasion, two-thirds of Americans said they agreed with the decision to go to war.
“The way ahead is not going to be easy,” Bush said Friday, while dismissing the surveys but acknowledging the U.S. mission in Iraq is in a “time of testing.”
Still, he said he would not yield to insurgents who “figure that if they can shake our will and affect public opinion, then politicians will give up on the mission. I’m not giving up on the mission.”
Asked for a second time in two weeks whether he agreed with Vice President Dick Cheney’s view that the insurgency is in its “last throes,” Bush did not answer directly. Battling the insurgency is “difficult … it’s tough work,” he responded. He said the insurgents inflict carnage “because they know that the carnage they create will be on TV, and they know that it bothers people to see death.”
“And it does – it bothers me, it bothers American citizens, it bothers Iraqis,” he said. “The enemy’s goal is to drive us out of Iraq before the Iraqis have established a secure, democratic government. They will not succeed.”
Bush insisted that there was reason for optimism, citing the training of Iraqi forces and signs of progress in developing a national constitution. He expressed optimism that Iraqis could complete the job of writing the constitution by the Aug. 15 deadline.
U.S. authorities have been pressing the Iraqis to stick to that timetable, which includes holding a referendum on the new charter on Oct. 15 and parliamentary elections in December. But the Iraqi officials retain the right to delay the process by six months, potentially pushing Iraqi self-reliance further into the future.
On some issues, the two leaders reached for hopeful signs. Al-Jaafari, who took office in early May, said “bombings” had declined recently. However, some attacks, especially car bombs, have reached a new level of ferocity. April and May were record months for car bombs, with more than 135 each month. U.S. and Iraqi officials had reported that the total number of car bombs was down in June, but there has been a recent upsurge.
Welcoming al-Jaafari to his first White House visit as prime minister, Bush praised the 58-year-old physician and devout Shiite as a “great Iraqi patriot,” a “bold man” and a “frank, open fellow, who is willing to tell me what’s on his mind.”
At the same time, al-Jaafari’s position on the role of Islam in the Iraqi government and public life has been unclear in the past, attracting suspicion from Kurdish and Sunni Iraqis and causing some concern among U.S. officials who would prefer Iraq has a secular government.
Bush downplayed the dominance of the U.S. presence in Iraq. An Iraqi reporter asked when the government would begin reconstruction projects, to provide jobs to young Iraqis, and draw them away from the insurgency. Bush said he didn’t want to be “passing the buck,” but referred the question to al-Jaafari.
“You need to ask that to the government,” he said. “They’re in charge. It’s your government, not ours.”
Al-Jaafari offered thanks to Americans for their financial support and troops.
“No doubt our people will never forget those who stand beside Iraq, particularly at these terrible times,” he said. “You have given us something more than money – you have given us a lot of your sons, your children, that were killed beside our own children in Iraq. Of course, this is more precious than any other kind of support you can give.”
By fighting militants in Iraq, U.S. troops were battling a foe that they would otherwise face in other places around the world, al-Jaafari asserted.
He sought to present his government as one that would appeal to Americans, stressing its democratic nature and noting that the ministers in his government include six “minister ladies.” He said he intended to add one more woman to be deputy prime minister.
Echoing a theme struck by Bush administration officials lately, al-Jaafari listed accomplishments that Iraq has achieved in spite of the doubts of some observers.
“People said Saddam would not fall, and he did. They say the elections would not happen, and they did. They say the constitution will not be written, but it will,” al-Jaafari said.