WASHINGTON – President Bush said Saturday he understands that Americans are disturbed by persistent scenes of bloodshed and turmoil nearly four years after the war began, but promised he is helping to put Iraq "on a solid path to liberty and democracy."
Bush returned Thursday from an overseas trip that included a stop in Jordan to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. On Monday, he sees Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the Shiite leader of the largest bloc in Iraq's parliament, at the White House and next month is holding talks with Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi.
"Many people in our country are wondering about the way forward," the president said in his Saturday radio address. "The work ahead will not be easy, yet by helping Prime Minister Maliki strengthen Iraq's democratic institutions and promote national reconciliation, our military leaders and diplomats can help put Iraq on a solid path to liberty and democracy."
Bush added: "The decisions we make in Iraq will be felt across the broader Middle East."
The president is under pressure to decide a new blueprint for U.S. involvement in Iraq where sectarian violence is on the rise and pushing the nation to the brink of an all-out civil war.
Al-Hakim, who backed a rival candidate over al-Maliki in the prime minister's race earlier this year, is leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. SCIRI is the largest party in al-Maliki's governing coalition. Many consider al-Hakim a more powerful political figure than al-Maliki because of his party's electoral strength among Shiites and its Badr Brigade militia.
The Badr Brigade is widely blamed for some of the sectarian killings that have been tearing Iraq apart since the bombing of a major Shiite shrine north of Baghdad in February. Al-Hakim repeatedly has denied the involvement of the Badr Brigade in the violence, arguing the militia has been turned into a political organization.
"I recognize that the recent violence in Iraq has been unsettling," Bush said.
The meetings are part of a flurry of effort by the Bush administration ahead of next week's release of recommendations from a special committee on Iraq headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. Bush has repeatedly rejected the idea of a phased withdrawal of troops, expected to be one of the commission's recommendations.
On the radio, Bush pledged to make the necessary changes to more quickly train Iraqi security forces so they can secure the country and to move more military authority into the Iraqi government's hands.
"We need to do more, and we need to do it faster," the president said. "By helping Iraq's elected leaders get the Iraqi forces they need, we will help Iraq's democratic government become more effective in fighting the terrorists and other violent extremists, and in providing security and stability, particularly in Baghdad."
With the Baker report nearly out and war-weary Democrats set to take over Congress next month, Bush said he wants to hear "all advice" before deciding what changes to make to his Iraq policy.
"Success in Iraq will require leaders in Washington — Republicans and Democrats alike — to come together and find greater consensus on the best path forward," he said. "So I will work with leaders in both parties to achieve this goal."
Delivering the Democratic radio address, the Rev. Jim Wallis, head of the liberal Sojourners/Call to Renewal, an evangelical social justice movement, called "the cost and consequences of a disastrous war" moral issues that must be addressed.
"Leaders in both parties are acknowledging that the only moral and practical course is to dramatically change the direction of U.S. policy, starting with an honest national debate about how to extricate U.S. forces from Iraq with the least possible damage to everyone involved," Wallis said.