President Sees the Middle East as a Bright Spot
Confident that events in the Middle East are moving in his administration’s direction, President Bush on Wednesday sketched his vision of Lebanon as a “thriving democracy” and light-heartedly expressed doubt that terrorist groups could win free elections on a platform of “blowing up America.”
During a wide-ranging news conference that touched on several Middle East issues, Bush reiterated his call for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and defended his administration’s decision to join with Europe in efforts to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
With the newly elected Iraqi National Assembly seated Wednesday, Bush referred to the struggle to form a government in Baghdad as a “wholesome process,” despite unease with the rate of progress in the six weeks since the country’s first free, multiparty elections in decades.
Bush’s call for Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon was the latest salvo of a diplomatic offensive to pressure Syrian leader Bashar Assad to comply with a U.N. resolution passed last year that demands a complete pullout of foreign troops.
Since the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri triggered a convulsive backlash against Syria’s 30-year military presence in Lebanon, about one-third of Syria’s 14,000 military troops stationed there are believed to have returned home. Others have moved to border areas. Assad has given no date for completing the pullout.
Bush on Wednesday reiterated his demand that an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 intelligence operatives, who historically have worked to stifle opposition to pro-Syria governments in Beirut, also be sent home.
“I am concerned and the world should be concerned that the intelligence organizations are embedded in a lot of government functions in Lebanon,” Bush said.
The president reiterated comments he made a day earlier that appear to suggest that the militant group Hezbollah, listed as a terrorist organization by the State Department, could prove it was not a terrorist group by putting down its arms and not jeopardizing the peace in a democratic Lebanon.
“Maybe someone will run for office, say, ‘Vote for me, I look forward to blowing up America’ ... I don’t know ... [but] I don’t think so,” Bush said Wednesday. “I think people generally run for office, say, ‘Vote for me, I’m looking forward to fixing your potholes or making sure you’ve got bread on the table.’ ”
On Iran, Bush said he hoped that leaders in Tehran would accept incentives offered by U.S. and European officials to give up its efforts to enrich uranium for a nuclear program, which the Iranians insist has only peaceful purposes.
“I hope they realize the world is clear about making sure that they don’t end up with a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Despite the violence in Iraq and the continuing inability of the National Assembly to form a government, Bush was upbeat about the country’s future, praising the courage of Iraqi citizens who voted in the Jan. 30 national election, which he called “a powerful moment in the history of freedom.”
Bush also said he had received assurances from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi that Italian troops would not leave the country until Iraqi troops were capable of taking over security responsibilities in southern Iraq.
In an announcement Tuesday that caught Pentagon officials off guard, Berlusconi said the Italian forces would begin pulling out in September.
“He wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy, that in fact any withdrawals would be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves,” Bush said.
In Rome, Berlusconi said he would not pull the estimated 3,000 Italian troops from Iraq without “full agreement with the Iraqi government and allied governments,” according to the prime minister’s office.
He said withdrawal this year was his “hope.”
“This means we should not fix an arbitrary date for a withdrawal,” Berlusconi later told British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Italian officials said. “We should withdraw when the job is done, not before.”
Times staff writers Mark Mazzetti in Washington and Tracy Wilkinson in Rome contributed to this report.