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Bush to press allies to boost Afghan effort

Times Staff Writer

President Bush said Tuesday that NATO allies must “make the hard decisions” necessary to secure peace in Afghanistan and promised to press for increased contributions of troops and money next month to battle a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Bush also cited political and security progress in Iraq, as he portrayed the two wars as part of a mission to defeat terrorism that will be passed on to his successors.

Speaking at the Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center in Nashville, Bush said that since an American troop buildup in Iraq last year, “sectarian killings are down, Al Qaeda has been driven from many strongholds it once held. I strongly believe the surge is working and so do the Iraqis.”

As the fifth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq approaches next week, Bush fervently described the administration’s efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan as twinned elements of his foreign policy in a speech to the annual convention of the National Religious Broadcasters.

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He presented the two conflicts as battles of good against an evil equal to the genocidal campaigns of World War II and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, declaring freedom “God’s gift to all humanity.”

“We undertake this work because we believe that every human being bears the image of our maker,” Bush said.

“That’s why we’re doing this.”

In a comment that suggested an obligation on the part of his successor to continue the mission, he said, “I believe it is important for administrations to confront problems now and not pass them on to other people, and that’s the choice I have made for the sake of peace and freedom.”

He spoke on a day when a roadside bomb missed a passing American military convoy and ripped into a bus on a highway in southeastern Iraq, killing 16 passengers and injuring between 13 and 22 others, according to Iraqi security officials.

Monday was the deadliest day in Iraq for U.S. troops since January.

Five U.S. soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in Baghdad, and three American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in Diyala province.

Bush’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by applause and church-like murmurs of approval.

It was the first in a series leading to the March 20 anniversary of the Iraq invasion, an attempt to set the stage for two potentially important moments in the U.S. and international debates over that conflict and the one in Afghanistan.

In one, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit will be held in Bucharest, Romania, at which the alliance’s contributions to the war in Afghanistan are expected to be the central topic.

And, in the second, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander there, will testify before Congress in April.

Faced with a Democratic majority, Bush will use the authoritative voices of his top general and diplomat in Baghdad, who are nearing the end of their tours, to pressure legislators seeking to draw down U.S. troop levels in Iraq.

The Bush administration’s primary goal is to persuade members of Congress that a too-steep withdrawal would jeopardize the security and political gains the administration has claimed over the last year.

On Afghanistan, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week began to make the administration’s pitch to reluctant foreign ministers for increased troop deployments.

The Pentagon is planning to increase its contingent by 3,200 Marines, who would be joining 29,000 U.S. troops, about half of whom serve with the 40,000-plus NATO force.

The president said in his speech that he would remind members of NATO that the mission in Afghanistan was aimed at consolidating the security of Western nations and meeting local humanitarian needs.

He said he would ask the alliance “to join the United States in doing even more.”

“For the sake of human life and human dignity and for the sake of the security of the United States of America, we will stop this murderous movement now before it finds a new path to power,” Bush said, referring to the Taliban and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

The president also sought to address critics who argue that the Iraq war has diverted attention and resources from what they see as the more important battle against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“Some seem to believe that one of these battles is worth fighting and the other isn’t. In other words, there is a good war and a bad war,” Bush said. “The theaters are part of the same war, the same calling, the same struggle, and that’s why it is essential we succeed.”

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james.gerstenzang@latimes.com


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