CAMP DAVID, Md. – Two years ago when an interim, caretaker government assumed political power from the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq, President Bush suggested that the Iraqis were ready to take off their training wheels.
Now, with a permanent government in place, Bush says the future success in Iraq depends largely on whether the new team in Baghdad is able to secure the nation and take care of its citizens.
On Tuesday, when the face of Iraq's new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is beamed into the Camp David presidential retreat over a teleconference hookup, Bush will be offering to help the fragile democracy chart its future. At the same time, he'll be expressing the administration's desire to shift responsibility for Iraq to the Iraqis — a move that would permit a drawdown of U.S. troops.
"The best way to win this war against an insurgency is to stand up a unity government which is capable of defending itself, but also providing tangible benefits to the people," Bush said Monday, extolling the nation's vast oil resources, thriving small business sectors and stable currency.
"Ultimately, the Iraqi people are going to have to make up their mind: Do they want to live in terror, or do they want to live in peace," the president said. "And the United States and our coalition will help them realize their ambitions if they choose to live in peace and hope, which we believe they will."
Tuesday's secure videoconference between the U.S. and Iraqi leaders and members of their cabinets comes on the final day of a two-day work session on the war, a conflict that is dragging down Bush's approval rating at a time when Republicans are skittish about the prospect of losing control of Congress in November's midterm elections.
Bush's huddle in Maryland's Catoctin Mountains with his top advisers is aimed at seizing momentum generated by last week's swearing-in of key Iraqi national security officials and the U.S. airstrike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Al Qaeda named a successor Monday to al-Zarqawi and said he would stick to the slain leader's path — attacks on Shiites as well as on U.S. and Iraqi forces.
"I think the successor to Zarqawi is going to be on our list to bring to justice," Bush warned.
But the meeting, planned before Zarqawi's death, was more narrowly focused on identifying ways U.S. agencies, including the Defense, Commerce and Energy departments, can best help the new government succeed in a country where the electricity runs sporadically and Iraqi civilian and U.S. troop deaths are mounting.
Bush, noting that Iraq's new defense minister was just sworn in last week, made no predictions about U.S. troop withdrawals. He said Gen. George Casey, the top commander in Baghdad, would make recommendations after assessing the Iraqis' ability to take the fight to the enemy and secure the country.
Bush also said Iraq's neighbors should be doing more to help. He said the United States expects countries — both in and outside the Middle East — that have promised $13 billion in financial assistance to make good on their pledges.
The president, Vice President Dick Cheney and a slate of top-level administration officials discussed security in Iraq, especially in Baghdad and Basra, the economy and energy.
Bush suggested that the Iraqi government use the nation's vast supply of oil as a way to unite the country, perhaps creating a fund for the Iraqi people to restore their faith in the new unified central government.
Now in its fourth year, the war also was an issue Monday on Capitol Hill.
The Senate opened debate on a military policy bill, and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., intended to offer a plan to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of the year. The White House has long opposed setting deadlines in Iraq, and Kerry's amendment is expected to be defeated in a vote later this week.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, in a speech in Washington, called the war in Iraq an "intractable conflict" and said Americans deserve a plan from the president that provides troops with an exit strategy. "It is no longer sufficient to say 'we will stand down as the Iraqis stand up,'" Reid said, quoting a Bush refrain.
The House and Senate are poised to deal with a $94.5 billion supplemental measure to finance military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and provide additional aid for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast. The bill should receive easy approval, even as impatience is growing with the Iraq war and its $8 billion monthly tab.
On Thursday, the House will vote on a resolution supporting the U.S. mission in Iraq.