WASHINGTON – President Bush (search) said Friday that terrorists will not deter democracy from taking hold in Iraq and vowed that the United States will stay side-by-side with that country as long as it takes for Iraq to stand on its own.
"Today we're at a critical moment in the history of this proud nation," Bush said during a White House press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari (search) after the two had a closed-door meeting.
Bush said he told al-Jaafari that the American people share a democratic vision that includes a "deep and abiding respect for Islam, the people of Iraq and the potential of a nation that now belongs to them."
And progress will be made even in the face of ongoing attacks, he said.
"The enemy's goal is to drive us out of Iraq" before a permanent Iraqi government is established, Bush said. "They will not succeed."
For his part, al-Jaafari thanked the United States and the American people for "their courage against terrorism."
"This is not the time to fall back," he said, as Bush and his administration, as well as U.S. defense officials, face mounting criticism for the way operations are going in Iraq, with some Democrats calling for a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawl.
Bush reiterated his stance Friday that a timetable is out of the question.
"We don't have any timetables ... we are there to complete a mission" in the interest of America and peace around the world, he said. "It doesn't make any sense to give a timetable. If you give a timetable, you're conceding too much to the enemy."
And despite what violence makes the news headlines, al-Jaafari said, what he sees on the ground in his country is great progress being made.
"People said Saddam will not fall and he did. They said elections would not happen and they did. They said a constitution would not be written and it was," al-Jaafari said, adding that the people of Iraq want continued democracy and they will fight to achieve it.
"We want to secure love instead of hatred in our country," he added.
Seven months after the Coalition Provisional Authority transferred control of the country over to the fledgling Iraqi government, Bush noted, the Iraqi people successfully held elections and in April, formed a new government. More Sunni Arabs were included in the constitutional drafting committee this month. Iraq still needs to draft a permanent constitution and have new elections to choose a constitutional government.
"These are monumental tasks yet at every step of the way, so far, the Iraqi people have met their strategic objective and the terrorists have failed to stop them," Bush said. "I'm confident the Iraqi people will continue to defy the skeptics as they assume greater responsibility for their security and build a new Iraq that represents their diversity ... the way ahead is not going to be easy."
The White House meeting came on a day in which the Pentagon announced that a suicide car bomber had slammed into a U.S. convoy in Fallujah, killing two Marines. Officials said that three other Marines and a sailor were missing after the attack and another 13 Marines were wounded. Spokesman Bryan Whitman said some women were among the casualties.
Bush said there's no doubt insurgents and terrorists in the country with "no regard to human life" are "trying to shake our will" and derail progress there.
Bush said he would stay the course in Iraq despite public opinion polls showing dwindling support for his policy. He indicated his awareness of his domestic critics when a reporter began asking a question about whether he was concerned about a "slump" in his support.
"Quagmire?" the president asked, employing a word that some Democrats in Congress have begun to use to describe the military presence in Iraq one year after the transfer of sovereignty.
Al-Jaafari, seemed to recognize the domestic pressure on the president.
"You have given us more than money," said al-Jaafari, who visited wounded American troops on Thursday night at a military hospital in the capital. "You have given us your sons, your children, that were killed beside our own children in Iraq ... This is more precious than any other support we have received."
More than 1,700 American troops have died in Iraq, the majority of them since the end of hostilities aimed at toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein. There have been 479 car bombs in Iraq since the handover of sovereignty on June 28, 2004, according to an Associated Press count.
Prior to the press conference, the two men met to discuss political and military strategy at a time when U.S. public support for the war is waning, lawmakers are pressing for a timeline for U.S. withdrawal and televisions are flashing with unsettling pictures of deadly violence.
In an Oval Office meeting, both leaders underscored work being done to train Iraqi security forces (search) — a precursor to bringing U.S. troops home — as well as efforts to draft a constitution and rebuild a nation still wracked by a violent insurgency more than two years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein (search).
Bush's meeting with the Iraqi leader came just ahead of the one-year anniversary, next Tuesday, of the transfer of sovereignty. Bush will mark the event with a speech at 8 p.m. EDT to several hundred troops at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
"This is a critical moment in Iraq and it is a critical moment for us in the war on terrorism (search)," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said. "This is a real time of testing. The American people have seen some of the disturbing images on their televisions. ... We can expect more tough fighting ahead."
On Thursday, al-Jaafari confidently predicted Thursday that a constitution to guide his country toward democracy would be concluded by the end of August and then ratified in a popular referendum.
"We are going to do it within two months," al-Jaafari said as he inspected the U.S. Constitution in the dimly lit, cool rotunda of the National Archives. Asked if it would be approved by the Iraqi people in the fall, he replied, "Yes."
In the meantime, the U.S.-led multinational force must stay in Iraq until Iraqi forces are fully prepared to defend the country by themselves, al-Jaafari said.
Setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces would be a sign of weakness, he said. "The country would be open to increased terrorist activity," he told the private Council on Foreign Relations.
However, the International Crisis Group, a private advocacy group based in Brussels, Belgium, recommended the drafting deadline be extended for six months, or to next February, "to allow for public education and broad cosultation."
Writing a constitution is critical to the country's stability, the report said.
Al-Jaafari made a stop at the White House on Thursday to review strategy with Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. He went to the archives, met with congressional leaders on Capitol Hill and visited Walter Reed Army Medical Center to express gratitude to U.S. troops wounded in his country.
The White House meeting is being held against the backdrop of growing concern among Americans about an engagement that has claimed the lives of more than 1,700 American troops.
Foreign policy had typically given Bush his highest scores with the public, but that has changed. An Associated Press-Ipsos poll this month found just 41 percent of adults supported his handling of the Iraq war, a new low.
There have been 479 car bombs in Iraq since the handover of sovereignty on June 28, 2004, according to an AP count. At least 2,174 people have been killed and 5,520 have been wounded.
Continued bloodshed underscores comments from the top American commander in the Persian Gulf, who told lawmakers on Thursday that the Iraqi insurgency has not grown weaker over the past six months.
"I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago," Gen. John Abizaid said during a contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "There's a lot of work to be done against the insurgency."
The testimony undercut Vice President Dick Cheney's recent assertion that the insurgency was in its "last throes."
Asked whether he wanted to revise his comment, Cheney said in a cable television interview on Thursday, "No, but I'd be happy to explain what I meant by that."
"I think there will be a lot of violence, a lot of bloodshed, because I think the terrorists will do everything they can to try to dispute that process [of training security forces]," Cheney said. "But I think it is well under way. I think it's going to be accomplished."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.