WASHINGTON – President Bush said Monday the United States is already helping on the ground in Lebanon ahead of an international peacekeeping force to make sure that people can return to their homes following the armed conflict with Israel and Hezbollah militants.
Bush said the United States is making a commitment to help the U.N.-sanctioned international force, whose composition has yet to be determined, with logistics support, command and control, communications and intelligence.
"We will also work with the leadership in the international force, once it's identified, to ensure that the United States is doing all we can to make this mission a success," Bush told reporters in the White House Conference Center briefing room.
He said the United States has already offered active assistance in the form of diplomacy as well as cash and humanitarian aid, including 20,000 tons of wheat and $230 million in assistance. The president said $25 million of that pledge has been spent on rebuilding already.
In addition, Bush said reopening the Beirut airport to passenger and humanitarian aid flights and ensuring a steady fuel supply for Lebanese power plants and automobiles are high priorities. Bush said other priorities include tapping into the private sector to find ways to help people rebuild their homes, rehabilitating schools before the new school year begins, cleaning up an oil slick near coastal communities and proposing a $42 million package to help train and equip Lebanon's armed forces.
"I'll also work closely with Congress to extend the availability of loan guarantees to help rebuild infrastructure in Israel, infrastructure damaged by Hezbollah's rockets," Bush said.
Bush said U.N. Resolution 1701 authorizes an international force of 15,000 to deploy to Lebanon alongside 15,000 Lebanese troops to give displaced people there and in Israel "the confidence to return to their homes."
U.N. officials had hoped to put 3,500 troops on the ground by next Monday, but so far, no European countries have stepped up with a large contribution of forces. Over the weekend, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his country would not permit peacekeepers from nations that do not have diplomatic ties to Israel, including Indonesia, Malaysia and Bangladesh, which offered the most troops.
France, which commands the existing U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon known as UNIFIL, had been expected to make a significant new contribution that would form the backbone of the expanded force. But President Jacques Chirac disappointed the international body and other countries last week by merely doubling France's contingent of 200 troops.
"I would hope that they would put more troops in," Bush said of France's commitment.
"An international force requires an international commitment," Bush said. "Previous resolutions have failed in Lebanon because they were not implemented by the international community and did not prevent Hezbollah and its sponsors" from building up in the region.
But he said another resolution for a peacekeeping force will be developed in the U.N. Security Council. Later, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton said a new Security Council resolution could help break the impasse over getting an expanded U.N. force on the ground quickly, outline actions for disarming Hezbollah and clear up questions about the rules of engagement.
"I think the initial force can be deployed now," Bolton told reporters. "We want the disarming of Hezbollah to be accomplished rapidly so that the democratically elected government of Lebanon can establish full control over its territory."
Bush, who held his last presidential press conference July 7 in Chicago, returned from Camp David on Sunday. He spoke on Lebanon, Iran and Iraq, three areas of instability. He said if the new government fails in Iraq, the country could become a "safe haven for terrorists and extremists."
"I hear a lot of talk about civil war. I'm concerned about that, of course, and I've talked to a lot of people about it. And what I've found from my talks are that the Iraqis want a unified country. And that the Iraqi leadership is determined to thwart the efforts of the extremists and the radicals and Al Qaeda," Bush said.
"The strategy is to help the Iraqi people achieve their objectives and their dreams, which is a democratic society. ... We're not leaving so long as I'm the president. That would be a huge mistake. It would send an unbelievably terrible signal to reformers across the region. It would say we've abandoned our desire to change the conditions that create terror," Bush said.
Using much of the same terminology he applied to Lebanon, Bush said the Iraqi people want freedom, a political solution to the violence, security, reconciliation and rehabilitation. An estimated 3,500 Iraqis died in insurgent attacks and bombings in the country last month.
To help the Iraqi government achieve security, Bush said he has given commanders "all the flexibility they need" to change their tactics to thwart insurgents. He said the Stryker Brigade has also been moved from Mosul to Baghdad.
"One thing is clear: The Iraqi people are showing incredible courage. The United States of America must understand that it's in our interests that we help this democracy succeed. As a matter of fact, it's in our interests that we help reformers across the Middle East achieve their objectives. This is the fundamental challenge of the 21st century," Bush said.
In response, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi issued a statement criticizing the president for not developing a contingency plan for a failed state before sending U.S. forces there.
"Our troops have been fighting in Iraq longer than we fought in Europe in World War II. The president's promise to keep American forces in Iraq as long as he is in office is no substitute for an effective plan to complete the mission," Pelosi, D-Calif., said. "Democrats believe it's time for a new direction in Iraq, with responsible redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq that begins this year."
Bush conceded that the situation in Iraq has become a tool for debate in the usually local issues-dominated midterm congressional elections.
"There are a lot of good decent people saying 'get out now. Vote for me, I'll do everything I can to cut off money. ...' It's a big mistake. It would be wrong, in my judgment, to leave before the mission is completed in Iraq."
But the president said he's not getting involved in the Senate race in Connecticut, where Sen. Joe Lieberman has launched an independent bid for his seat after losing the Democratic primary to Ned Lamont, a fierce opponent of the Iraq war. Republican Alan Schlesinger is also running.
"I'm staying out of Connecticut" on the advice of the national Republican Party leaders, he said, adding that if he were a candidate right now, he'd be talking up the economy.
Bush was speaking to reporters in advance of Tuesday, the date set by the Iranian president for Tehran to give a formal response to an offer by six nations, including the United States to provide economic incentives to Iran if it freezes its nuclear program.
With an expectation, reinforced Monday by Iran's supreme leader that Tehran will reject the package, the White House has indicated it will move quickly to ask for international sanctions on the Islamic Republic if it does not suspend its nuclear enrichment. The United Nations has set an Aug. 31 deadline for that activity to end.
But Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is quoted on Iranian state television Monday as saying, "The Islamic Republic of Iran has made its own decision, and in the nuclear case, God willing, with patience and power, will continue its path."
Meanwhile, Iran continued its large-scale military maneuvers this weekend. According to Iran's state-run media, the Iranian military on Sunday fired 10 Thunderbolt surface-to-surface missiles that can travel 50 to 150 miles.
Asked about the destabilizing role Iran has played in the region, both in Iraq and Lebanon, Bush said, "The final history in the region has yet to be written.
"Iran is obviously part of the problem. They sponsor Hezbollah. They encourage a radical brand of Islam. Imagine how difficult this issue would be if Iran had a nuclear weapon," Bush said.
— Said he talked Monday morning with Chinese President Hu Jintao about trying to revive six-party negotiations aimed getting North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.
— Bemoaned high gasoline prices, calling them a tax taking money out of Americans' pockets. He said that's all the more reason to diversify away from foreign oil and fossil fuels in general.
—Said the federal government has committed $110 billion to Katrina relief nearly a year after the huge storm hit the Gulf Coast area, and that the money was taking longer to get to those who deserved it in Louisiana than in Mississippi.
—Said he believes that a morning-after pill, known as Plan B, ought to require a prescription for minors. Anti-abortion groups want Bush to withdraw Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, his nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration, because they think he will approve over-the-counter sales of the morning-after pill. Democrats, meanwhile, are upset that the FDA has long delayed settling the 3-year-old debate over whether at least some women could buy the emergency contraceptive without a doctor's note.
FOX News' Molly Henneberg contributed to this report.