Bush urges leaders to speed new gov’t

WASHINGTON (AFP) — President George W. Bush urged Iraqi leaders Monday to speed the formation of a new government and maintain political momentum, which he needs to reignite US support for the unpopular war.
At a White House news conference, Bush pressed the appeal he made in a televised address Sunday for US patience and sacrifice to battle an insurgency raging 33 months after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

But the president, who considers Iraq the central front in his war on terrorism, also called on Iraqis to quickly follow up their parliamentary elections last week and form their first permanent post-Saddam government.

“We’ve got to help the Iraqi government as best as they need help to stand up to a government as quickly as possible,” Bush said.

“We’re urging them, don’t delay. Move as quickly as you can.”

The successful parliamentary elections, in which more than 10 million Iraqis voted, were welcome news to a Bush administration faced with a US death toll rising past 2,150 and increasing dissatisfaction here with the war.

But Bush acknowledged more work needed to be done to stabilise the country, with its fractious majority Shiites, Kurds and minority Sunnis, and to lay the groundwork for a withdrawal of the some 160,000 US troops.

“The formation of the new government will take time as Iraqis work to build consensus,” he said. “Iraq’s new leaders will face many important decisions on issues such as security and reconstruction, economic reform and national unity.

“The work ahead will require the patience of the Iraqi people and the patience and support of America and our coalition partners,” the US leader told reporters.

As Bush struggles to reverse declining support for the war launched in March 2003, he is under pressure even from within his own Republican Party to come up with an exit strategy before congressional elections next November.

Even if the Iraqi polls and a monthlong public relations offensive by the administration succeeds in slowing the dropping poll numbers, recent history suggests such gains may be temporary without additional signs of progress.

Iraq’s first post-Saddam elections in January produced a rosier perception of the war among Americans, polls showed. But the numbers started to go back south amid three months of Iraqi bickering over an interim government.

Analysts have said the next six to nine months could be crucial to the US venture in Iraq and hinge on whether Sunnis are given a significant role in the government and a constitution they consider more equitable.

But some officials have fretted the political process could get bogged down in another round of squabbling after ballot counting in the parliamentary elections is completed in January.

Richard Lugar, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leading Republican voice on foreign policy, warned last week an operational government might not be finalised until April.

He said this raised the prospect of a rudderless Iraq, allowing insurgents and militias to fill leadership and security vacuums. Democratic critics of the war have painted similar scenarios.

In his drive to win back domestic backing, Bush has taken on a significantly humbler tone, acknowledging the deep rifts the war has produced in the country and admitting to setbacks and errors in the operation.

On Monday, he conceded that false assessments of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capacity that were used to justify the invasion had damaged the credibility of US intelligence.

Bush said the bad intelligence on Iraq made it harder to convince the general public that the Americans were correct in their suspicions about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, which Tehran vehemently denies.

“People will say, you know, if we’re trying to make the case on Iran, you know, well, the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust the intelligence in Iran?” the president said.

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