WASHINGTON – Emphasizing the successes in Iraq a day after returning from a surprise visit there, President Bush said Wednesday that the United States will help Iraq succeed as it heads toward a stable democracy.
"My trip over there gave me confidence that we have a partner that is capable of setting priority and developing a plan to make those priorities, and then following through to see that those priorities are met," Bush told reporters in a Rose Garden press conference.
"I made it very clear to the Iraqis — and I'm going to make it clear to them again right here — that we'll stay with them and help them succeed," he said.
Despite all the good news out of Iraq lately, the president said the threat from Al Qaeda is real, and it must be stopped not just in Iraq but everywhere.
"Iraq is not the only part of this war. It's an essential part. But it's not the only part of the war on terror. And so the decisions I make are all aimed at protecting the American people and understanding the vast stakes involved," he said.
"They still want to do innocent people harm, whether it be in the Middle East or here in the United States of America," Bush added. "But the terrorists are vulnerable. And we will strike their network and disrupt their operations and continue to bring their leaders to justice."
While trying to cripple the terror network, the president said he would like to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where terrorists plucked from the Afghanistan battlefield in October 2001 have been in detention since then.
"I'd like to close Guantanamo. But I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darned dangerous, and that we'd better have a plan to deal with them in our courts," Bush said. "The best way to handle — in my judgment handle these types of people is through our military courts. And that's why we're waiting on the Supreme Court to make a decision."
Bush noted that closing Guantanamo Bay down would mean in part sending people back to their native countries, but that would also create a Catch-22, since many people would be returned to countries that would treat their prisoners much worse than the United States would.
"The State Department is in the process of encouraging, you know, countries to take the folks back. Of course, sometimes we get criticized for sending some people out of Guantanamo back to their home country because of the nature of the home countries," he said, noting that many prisoners have been sent home already.
The president said the biggest threat to Iraq now comes from insurgents and Iraqi civilians who would like to prevent the country from achieving the goal of a democratically elected government with a stable infrastructure that allows Iraqis to have confidence in their leaders.
Militarily, among the new efforts being undertaken to build confidence, is Operation Together Forward, which got under way on Wednesday morning in Iraq. The operation, created by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is being carried out by 26,000 Iraqi soldiers, 23,000 Iraqi police and 7,200 coalition forces.
It's purpose is to restore order to Baghdad, a city of 6.5 million people. Iraqi troops will increase the number of checkpoints, enforce a curfew and implement a strict weapons ban across the Iraqi capital. A separate mission will be to restore security in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
But building confidence in the government comes not only from reducing violence, but also from making sure the trains run on time, the president said. To that end, he said he is corralling his entire Cabinet to help out and calling on other nations who have previously pledged support to contribute to Iraq's success.
"The international community pledged about $13 billion to help this new government, and they've only paid about $3 billion. And so we're going to help encourage those who made a pledge to pay up, to help the new government succeed," Bush said.
Bush offered a long list of actions his Cabinet is taking to help the Iraqi government get off the ground, including sending advisory teams to help with energy production, agriculture and human rights.
"We are working with the Iraqi government on measures to protect the infrastructure from insurgent attacks. There's rapid repair teams that are being established that will quickly restore oil and electricity production if and when attacks do occur," Bush said.
Bush suggested that a way to increase unity, particularly among disaffected Sunnis, would be to make sure that everyone has a stake in Iraq's chief commodity — oil.
"My advice to them is to use their energy assets in a way to unite the country ... they may not have oil resources in their part of the country but they have a stake" in making sure the oil is produced, he said.
With plans to send over Cabinet secretaries, Bush said he wants to establish an internal affairs bureau to root out corruption and a team "to help them investigate and punish human rights violations."
He said he has deployed advisory teams to assist Iraq's new ministers of defense and interior, who are creating command and control teams.
The news conference was announced earlier Wednesday morning, and like Bush's surprise trip to Iraq the day before, it's part of a White House attempt to keep the spotlight on Iraq to capitalize on a series of to positive events there, including the formation of a unity government and the death of Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Bush said he had a chance to congratulate the soldiers involved in the mission to kill Zarqawi, who had taken responsibility for dozens of attacks on Iraqi civilians and coalition troops.
"When you're in a theater like that, it's important to hear words of congratulations sometimes, to hear that their efforts are appreciated — and doing hard work. And I got to do that," Bush said.
The president said he will determine when to reduce or increase the number of U.S. troops based on what his generals say. Currently, about 129,000 U.S. troops are in Iraq. Several U.S. lawmakers and even the Iraqi prime minister are hopeful of dropping that number to about 100,000 by year's end.
After the press event, Democrats criticized Bush for failing to discuss more concretely any troop withdrawal plan.
"What we heard from the president today sounds like more of the same -- stay the course, which is a slogan, but it is not a plan," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi after leaving a White House meeting with Bush and other congressional leaders. "What we would like is an approach that says, when we reach certain milestones, then we begin a responsible redeployment of our troops and that the commitment is not open-ended."
Senate Democrats have put together amendments for votes on Thursday that would outline where they stand on removing troops from Iraq. Bush said he was unmoved by the gesture.
"Don't bet on American politics forcing my hand, because it's not going to happen," Bush said.