U.S. Will Stick With Iraq Mission, Bush Pledges
President Bush promised his Iraqi counterpart Tuesday that the United States would persevere in the joint fight against insurgents.
Appearing with President Jalal Talabani during a day of meetings with foreign leaders, Bush pledged that U.S. forces would “stay on the offensive alongside Iraqi security forces.” He said they would return home when their mission was over.
Bush also intensified American pressure on Syria, saying that he was working to isolate Damascus because it allowed insurgents to cross its eastern border into Iraq and continued to meddle in the affairs of neighboring Lebanon.
Bush said that during this week’s meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, he would be talking to foreign leaders about Syria’s actions.
The Syrian government “can do a lot more to prevent the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq,” Bush said, adding that Syrian President Bashar Assad “must understand we take his lack of action seriously.” Syrian officials say they have made a major effort to police their border.
U.S. officials have been complaining for months but recently stepped up the pressure. On Monday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told reporters that U.S. officials were considering all options in dealing with the problem.
Haim Malka, a fellow in the Middle East Program of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted that Assad had canceled his trip to the U.N. gathering after the Americans made clear that he would not be welcome in joint meetings that U.S. officials were planning.
Ethnic and religious factions in Iraq clashed last month over development of a draft constitution that will face an October referendum. Bush on Tuesday praised the draft constitution as a milestone document that protects fundamental freedoms and helps ensure the unity of a diverse nation. Talabani offered a more balanced assessment, acknowledging that the document is not perfect.
Talabani said in a speech in Washington last week that he believed most coalition forces could be out of Iraq by 2007. On Monday, in an interview with the Washington Post, he said the United States might be able to withdraw as many as 50,000 troops by the end of this year.
Bush has refused to talk about timetables, saying it only encourages the insurgents to wait out the U.S. forces. Timetables could also be embarrassing for the president if the troops are not withdrawn by the designated date.
Talabani omitted any reference to dates for troop pullouts in his latest remarks.
“We will set no timetable for withdrawal, Mr. President,” he said. “We hope that by the end of 2006, our security forces are up to the level of taking responsibility from many American troops, with complete agreement from America.”
Bush’s view of the U.S. military mission in Iraq continues to differ slightly from that of Pentagon officials, who consider it unlikely that U.S. forces will be able to defeat the insurgency. Bush says the U.S. objective is to defeat the insurgents, but American commanders have stressed that Iraqi forces would need to continue the battle after U.S. forces have departed.
The U.S. commander in charge of a campaign underway against insurgents near the Syrian border said that area might continue to serve as a refuge for fighters until Iraqi forces are able to defend it on their own. About 5,000 Iraqi troops are fighting alongside about 3,500 U.S. troops around the insurgent stronghold of Tall Afar.
“Is there enough force here right now to secure this area permanently? No,” said Army Col. H.R. McMaster, speaking to Pentagon reporters in a videoconference. “We’ll continue to conduct operations in those outlying areas to disrupt [the insurgents’] ability, until we can establish a permanent security capability with police and army.”
McMaster said he couldn’t predict how long that might take, in part because he expected insurgents to continue their attacks against Iraqi troops and police officers.
“We’ve got to really make sure that they can withstand the enemy’s intimidation,” he said.
Times staff writer Mark Mazzetti contributed to this report.