President Bush publicly pressured the quarreling Iraqi political factions Wednesday to put aside their differences and establish a government.
“It’s time for a government to get stood up,” he said in the latest of a series of appearances bolstering his Iraq policy. “There’s time for the elected representatives -- or those who represent the voters, the political parties -- to come together and form a unity government. That’s what the people want. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone to the polls, would they have?”
Three months after the parliamentary elections, leaders of Iraq’s political factions are still trying to reach an agreement on a president, a prime minister and Cabinet members.
The Dec. 15 elections, in which about 80% of the country’s 15.5 million registered voters cast ballots despite threats of attacks, had raised hope in the Bush administration that such a key step toward civilian self-government would help defeat insurgent forces. Instead, insurgents continue to wreak death and destruction across much of Iraq.
The president’s remarks were the closest Bush has come to openly expressing irritation over the delay in negotiating an agreement that would assign power in an Iraqi government.
The president spoke before an overwhelmingly friendly audience of about 2,500 in this steel town in West Virginia’s rugged panhandle.
Wednesday was the fifth consecutive day Bush talked publicly about Iraq in part of an administration drive to regain support for the war, which polls indicate has been eroding. The war entered its fourth year this week.
“We’re not going to retreat in the face of thugs and assassins,” Bush said.
During the question-and-answer session after his remarks, Bush was asked about the case of a man, Abdur Rahman, who faces execution in Afghanistan for having converted from Islam to Christianity.
Afghanistan is governed by Islamic law, which calls for the death penalty for apostasy, but its constitution states that the country will adhere to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which includes the freedom to change religion.
“We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it to remind them that there are universal values,” Bush said. “It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another.”
In his speech, Bush again delved into the matter of how long U.S. troops would be deployed in Iraq.
During a news conference Tuesday, he said he recognized that the war was costing him political capital that he could invest instead in winning support for domestic programs. But he suggested that U.S. forces would still be deployed in Iraq when his second term ended, on Jan. 20, 2009.
On Wednesday, he repeated his statement that troop levels would be based on the advice of commanders on the scene. And noting that he would reject pressure from polls that show the war is dragging down support for his presidency, he stated, “I’m going to make up my mind based upon achieving a victory, not based upon polls, focus groups or election-year politics.”
Polls show that about 30% of those surveyed approve of the job Bush is doing, the lowest level since he took office five years ago.
Unlike a similar session Monday in Cleveland, in which he faced polite but tough questions, Bush received repeated rounds of applause, and the questions from the audience -- most of whom were invited by the local Chamber of Commerce -- were prefaced with praise for his presidency.
Only one questioner, a high school student, challenged Bush’s policies, asking why he followed a “double standard” that supported nuclear energy development in India but put obstacles in Iran’s way.
The president said India was a democracy following international protocol, and Iran was thwarting inspections and other efforts intended to make sure it did not develop a nuclear weapon.
A woman complained that national television programs had not shown the positive news about U.S. military accomplishments in Iraq. She said her husband, who was at her side in an Army uniform, had just returned from a 13-month tour in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, and had brought back videos of work in a medical center.
The president encouraged her to keep spreading the word using word of mouth, blogs and other access to the Internet.
But he deflected her criticism of the media, saying, “The minute we start suppressing a free press, we look like the Taliban.”