WASHINGTON – Hoping to help prevent Iraq's bloody sectarian violence from turning into civil war, President Bush on Friday urged Iraqis to exercise restraint in a critical "moment of choosing." Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice urged political factions to renew efforts to form a unity government.
Bush praised Iraq's political and religious leaders who have taken steps — apparently with some success — to halt the unrest that exploded after Wednesday's bombing of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines. Almost 130 have died in that attack on the Askariya Shrine in Samarra and in the wave of deadly reprisals that followed.
"We can expect the coming days will be intense. Iraq remains a serious situation," Bush said in a speech to The American Legion. "But I'm optimistic, because the Iraqi people have spoken, and the Iraqi people made their intentions clear. ... They want their country to be a democracy."
Still, Bush, Rice and others employed unusually negative language, underscoring the gravity of the situation. There are fears in Baghdad and Washington alike that Iraq could be on the brink of civil war nearly three years after the U.S. invasion ousted Saddam Hussein's regime.
Bush spoke of "stunning acts of violence" and counseled that "difficult and exhausting" days ahead would require patience as both bloodshed and political conflict continue. Rice called this "an extremely hard and extremely delicate moment," acknowledged the violence was "a strike against Iraqi unity" and said "people's nerves are a bit on edge."
"There will be undoubtedly some period of time in which it is hard to have a completely unified response to what has happened, because it is very terrible," said Rice, traveling back to Washington from a tour of Arab capitals.
In Washington, Bush said, "We'll do everything in our power to help the Iraqi government identify and bring to justice those responsible for the terrorist acts."
"This is a moment of choosing for the Iraqi people," he said.
Added U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, "Everything that needs to be done must be done to avoid a civil war, and I think they are keenly aware of the danger."
Hoping to halt the cycle of retaliation against Sunni and Shiite mosques, the Iraqi government imposed an extraordinary daytime curfew in Baghdad and elsewhere and announced travel bans and other security measures. Influential religious leaders sought to defuse tensions between sects by summoning Iraqis to joint Shiite and Sunni services for Friday prayers.
Col. Jeffrey Snow, a U.S. Army brigade commander in Baghdad, said the moves were helping.
"It appears as though the people have really listened to the government of Iraq as well as their religious leadership in terms of not allowing this to break down into violent acts," Snow said in a teleconference with Pentagon press.
Rice acknowledged that the violence could deal a setback to U.S.-backed talks among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish leaders to fashion a permanent government. The formation of a unity government is regarded as key to demoralizing the Sunni-dominated insurgency and setting the stage for the end of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But the largest Sunni Arab bloc in parliament has said it will not resume negotiations until the government apologizes for failing to protect Sunni mosques from reprisals and commits to finding those responsible.
Rice predicted the political negotiations would be halted only temporarily.
"This makes it harder today and perhaps tomorrow, but I'm confident that the Iraqis are devoted to, dedicated to, the formation of a national unity government," she said. "I think they will get back to that process very shortly."
Iraq's neighbors expressed worry during Rice's travels this week about a possible spillover of violence.
"I do think that there's a concern that the sectarian tensions that outsiders are stoking in Iraq, that those same outsiders might try to stoke sectarian tension in other parts of the region," she said.
She named al-Qaida and terror leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as possible suspects, but said it is not clear who was responsible for "trying to stoke civil war in Iraq" and derail political consensus. "It's rarely been Iraqis who talked about civil war," she said.
In his speech, Bush also shot back at critics of U.S. efforts to promote democracy in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, where the Islamic militant group Hamas was victorious in Palestinian elections.
The president said radical extremism has flourished, often becoming more organized than other movements, "in large part because people in the Middle East have been denied legitimate means to express dissent." He contended that would change as free expression and legitimate elections give opportunity to more moderate movements.