WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday made a special pledge to a group of Iraqi women, saying the U.S. will not abandon the country militarily when a provisional government is set up next summer.
"When they hear me say, 'We're staying,' that means we're staying. And that's precisely what the terrorists want to do is to try to drive us out of Iraq before these leaders and other leaders are able to put their government together and live in peace," Bush said in the Oval Office, accompanied by five women leading the 17-women delegation meeting with the president.
Refusing to call the July 1, 2004, deadline for an interim government made up of Iraqis the start of an exit strategy, Bush said the work of abolishing terror remains a top goal.
"We fully recognize that Iraq has become a new front in the war on terror," Bush said. Various factors and terrorists "want to test the will of the civilized world ... We will work with Iraqis to bring people to justice."
The United States and Iraqi Governing Council (search) have agreed to restore self-rule to the country under an accelerated plan that envisions an elected government by the end of 2005.
The plan, agreed to this weekend, calls for each of Iraq's 18 provinces to select members of a transnational assembly by the end of May 2004. That assembly would take full sovereign powers by the end of June while the Iraqi Governing Council and coalition provisional authority are dissolved.
U.S. troops would stay on the ground, but forces would be reduced to 100,000 by spring and to even fewer as Iraqis are trained and armed to take over as a military force. National elections and a constitution would come about one year later.
The president said he wants to make sure that Iraqis — including those women who met with the president to discuss the hardships they had suffered under Saddam Hussein — would not be left to fend for themselves.
The five leaders of Iraqi women's roundtable included two members of the Iraqi Governing Council, two members of the Baghdad City Advisory Council and the co-founder of Women for a Free Iraq and the Iraqi Women's High Council. The women agreed that an early withdrawal of U.S. forces would hurt Iraq's future.
"We all like Iraq. We all like America. And we don't want them to leave us. We need them, because we have open borders and we don't have army and we don't have trained policemen. So we need them at this time, and we ask them to not leave us please at this time, because this is a very, very difficult position for us. Our children like you; our children want you to stay. And all Iraqi people like your forces," said one of the women leaders seated on a couch by the president.
The president said he has no plans for a hasty withdrawal of American forces, but he wants Iraqis to have the freedom to decide how to form a government and new laws needed to get the country up and running.
"The politics will go forward. The political process is moving on. The Iraqi people are plenty capable of governing themselves," the president said.
He added that a free Iraq was in the interest of the United States.
"A free Iraq in a part of the world that is troublesome and dangerous will set such a good example," he said. "We're talking about a historic opportunity to change parts of the world. And Iraq will be the leader of that change."
But even as the president makes plans to push up the timeline for an Iraqi takeover, Sen. Joe Biden (search), D-Del., ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the White House is not moving fast enough.
He sent around a letter to colleagues Monday saying senators should press the administration to replace civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer (search) and the coalition provisional authority with an international high commissioner reporting to the U.N. Security Council; create a NATO-led operation to conduct military actions and replace the IGC with a more representative body and establish it as the provisional government.
"The administration's new plan to hand over all power within six months sounds like another rosy scenario, one that is as divorced from the reality on the ground as U.S. policy has been for the last six months," Biden said in a statement Monday. "This is only half a plan, as it fails to invest the international community in the solution, and sends a message to the Baathist remnants that the world is not committed to see Iraqi democracy develop."
The State Department responded Monday that it is happy to have the United Nations share authority for the welfare of Iraq, but the international body has not yet expressed a readiness to commit to that goal.
"We have supported a role for the United Nations in Iraq that was defined in Resolution 1511, a resolution that we put forward and negotiated and that everybody voted for," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "We'd welcome that kind of role as soon as they think it possible to do so. But we don't want to push them ahead of their security considerations."
Visiting Washington Monday, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer praised the U.S.-backed plans for an accelerated transition.
"We'll have now a timeline for a transition of authority and sovereignty to an Iraqi government," Fischer said after meeting with Secretary of State Colin Powell at the State Department. "I think this could be very helpful."
He said Germany, which opposed the war and has offered no help accept to train postwar peacekeeping troops, would do what it could to contribute "to these positive developments," adding that it would be helpful for the United Nations to play a role.
The president is leaving Tuesday for a trip to Great Britain where he will meet with Prime Minister Tony Blair, families of fallen British soldiers and Queen Elizabeth II. Thousands of protesters were expected to demonstrate as Britons have increasingly registered their disapproval toward the Iraqi war.
Ahead of his trip, Bush said that it would be irresponsible to abandon Iraq, which is now the center of the war on terrorism. He added that recent terrorist attacks around the world demonstrate the true nature of the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
"They'll kill innocent people anywhere, anytime," he said. "That's just the way they are. They have no regard for human life.
"There's only one way to deal with Al Qaeda: find them and bring them to justice," Bush said.