Bush defends new Iraq strategy against strong opposition

WASHINGTON (AP) — President George W. Bush on Saturday challenged lawmakers sceptical of his new Iraq plan to propose their own strategy for stopping the violence in Baghdad.

“To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible,” Bush said.

In a pitch to lawmakers and the American people, Bush said the United States will keep the onus on the Iraqi government to take charge of security and reach a political reconciliation. He countered Democrats and his fellow Republicans who argue that Bush is sending 21,500 more US troops into Iraq on the same mission.

“We have a new strategy with a new mission: Helping secure the population, especially in Baghdad,” Bush said in his weekly radio address. “Our plan puts Iraqis in the lead.” The president, who hosted an informal, mostly social gathering of Republican leaders at Camp David on Friday night and Saturday, asked for patience from lawmakers from both parties. They had grilled Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, last week when the officials testified before Congress in defence of the president’s plan.

“Obviously, the need to secure Baghdad and strengthen an ally in the war on terror was among the items we discussed,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, said Saturday about the discussions the lawmakers had with Bush at Camp David. “But we also discussed the need to find bold solutions for other big issues.” Democratic leaders in the House and Senate intend to hold votes within a few weeks on Bush’s revised Iraq policy. The nonbinding resolutions would be one way to show their opposition to any troop buildup and force Republicans to make a choice about whether they support the president’s plan.

Rep. Tim Walz said that he, along with most Democrats and an increasing number of Republicans, believe sending more troops compounds a bad situation. Walz, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said diplomatic and political solutions are needed, not more troops.

“Before moving forward with this escalation, we owe it to these troops, to their families, and to all Americans to ask the tough questions and demand honest answers about this policy,” Walz said in the Democrats’ Saturday radio address.

“Is there a clear strategy that the commanders on the ground believe will succeed?” Walz said. “What are the benchmarks for success, and how long does the president believe it will take to achieve them? Is this a policy that will contribute to the America’s security in the larger war on terror, or distract from it?” Bush said lawmakers “have a right to express their views, and express them forcefully. But those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success.” He said Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has pledged that political sectarian interference with security operations will not be tolerated.

The president also said the United States will hold the Iraqi government to its pledge to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq’s provinces by November, pass legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis and spend $10 billion of its own money on reconstruction that will create new jobs.

“The Iraqi government knows that it must meet them, or lose the support of the Iraqi and the American people,” Bush said.

Bush has criticized the way the Maliki government handled the December 30 hanging of Saddam Hussein. Bush saw part of the Internet-aired cell phone video of the execution, which showed some Iraqis taunting Saddam as he stood with a noose around his neck on the gallows.

“I thought it was discouraging,” Bush said in an interview with “60 Minutes” to be broadcast on Sunday.

“They could have handled it a lot better.”  

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