WASHINGTON – President Bush on Tuesday decried the latest surge in sectarian violence in Iraq and declared that for Iraqis "the choice is chaos or unity."
Five attacks rocked Baghdad on Tuesday, killing more than 40 people, continuing a recent surge of violence.
Bush spoke after an Oval Office meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, shortly before he was to leave for a five-day trip to India and Pakistan.
For his part, Berlusconi said that he would stand by plans to withdraw all of Italy's 3,000 troops from Iraq by the end of the year.
"This plan has been agreed upon by our allies and the Iraqi government," said Berlusconi, one of the strongest U.S. allies on Iraq, who is facing a tough re-election campaign at home. He said that Italy's troops had helped train 10,000 Iraqi security officers.
On another subject, Bush said "my position hasn't changed" on support for transferring control of management of some U.S. port facilities from a British company to a Dubai-based one, despite his administration's agreement to launch a fresh 45-day re-examination of national security issues.
"Please look at the facts," Bush urged Congress, where the deal has drawn substantial bipartisan opposition and skepticism. After his remarks on port security, Bush told the translator not to translate his answer into Italian, unlike his other responses.
Bush sidestepped a question about whether the surge in sectarian violence since last week's bombing of a sacred Shiite mosque would affect his administration's hopes to begin drawing down U.S. troops.
"Obviously there are some who are trying to sow the seeds of sectarian violence," Bush said. "They destroy in order to create chaos. And now, the people of Iraq and their leaders must make a choice. The choice is chaos or unity, the choice is a free society, or a society dictated by evil people who would kill innocents."
Bush noted that he had spoken to seven Iraqi political leaders on Saturday in an effort to defuse the sectarian violence. "They understood the seriousness of the moment. They have made their choice, which is to work toward a unity government," Bush said.
Iraqis have suffered through days of reprisal killings and attacks on Sunni mosques since bombers blew apart the gold dome of the revered Shiite Askariya shrine in Samarra last Wednesday.
"The United States strongly condemns the bombing of holy sites," Bush said. "We believe people should be allowed to worship freely."
Bush said that 11 million Iraqis "made their choice ... and said we want to be free" by going to the polls in December's elections "in defiance of the terrorists and the killers."
Separately, Vice President Dick Cheney challenged the administration's critics during a speech at an American Legion convention.
"Here in Washington, if any believe Americans should suddenly withdraw from Iraq and stop fighting al-Qaida in the very place they have gathered, let them say so clearly," Cheney said. "If any believe that Americans should break our word and abandon our Iraqi allies, let them make it known."