Bush disagrees with idea that Iraq is now civil war

By Tom Raum The Associated Press

RIGA, Latvia – Under intense pressure to change course, President Bush yesterday, rejected suggestions Iraq has fallen into civil war and vowed not to pull U.S. troops out “until the mission is complete.”

At the opening of a NATO summit, Bush also urged allies to increase their forces in Afghanistan to confront a strengthening Taliban insurgency.

On the eve of his visit to Jordan for meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Bush portrayed the battles in both Afghanistan and Iraq as central fronts in a war “against the extremists who desire safe havens and are willing to kill innocents anywhere to achieve their objectives.”

The stakes in Iraq are huge for Bush. His war policies were repudiated in U.S. midterm elections that handed control of Congress to Democrats. A bipartisan blue-ribbon panel is about to issue a report proposing changes in the administration’s approach in Iraq. And al-Maliki’s government itself sometimes seems to be at cross purposes with Washington.

Bush set the stage for the Jordan talks with a speech at the NATO summit here and at an earlier news conference in neighboring Estonia. The president said he was flexible and eager to hear al-Maliki’s ideas on how to ease the violence.

“There’s one thing I’m not going to do, I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete,” Bush declared in his speech. There are about 140,000 U.S. forces in Iraq.

Earlier, speaking with reporters in Tallinn during a joint news conference with Estonia’s president, Bush would not debate whether Iraq had fallen into civil war and blamed the increasing bloodshed on a pattern of sectarian violence that he said was set in motion last winter by al-Qaida followers.

“I’m going to bring this subject up, of course, with Prime Minister Maliki,” Bush said. “My questions to him will be: What do you need to do to succeed? What is your strategy in dealing with the sectarian violence?”

Bush said he realized that “no question it’s dangerous there, and violent. And the Maliki government is going to have to deal with that violence, and we want to help them do so.”

Bush has been coming under increasing pressure, both overseas and at home, to reach out more to other countries, particularly to Syria and Iran to help with a solution in Iraq.

Such a recommendation may be among those issued by the Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton. The group is expected to finish its work next month.

Bush has resisted such talks, and he renewed a warning yesterday to both Iran and Syria not to meddle in Iraq. Still, al-Maliki’s government itself has made overtures to both countries.

“As far as Iraq goes, the Iraqi government is a sovereign government capable of handling its own foreign policies and is in the process of doing so,” Bush said in Tallinn.

Later, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said that Bush and al-Maliki have “a relationship of candor.”

“A lot of discussion has been about (Bush) pushing Maliki. Maliki has done a lot of pushing himself,” Hadley said. “There has been a coordinated effort between the Iraqi government and allied forces to get greater control. … It has not produced satisfactory progress in a satisfactory timeframe.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi said Bush must work with Democrats on stopping the violence in Iraq.

“We want to work in a bipartisan way to settle this,” Pelosi said. “If the president persists on the course that he is on, that will be more difficult.”

In Riga, Bush pressed many of the 26 NATO allies to do more to marshal resources and troops in Afghanistan, particularly in the volatile south.

Bush said the Afghanistan mission – which has mobilized over 32,000 troops – is NATO’s top operation and defeating Taliban forces “will require the full commitment of our alliance.”

“The commanders on the ground must have the resources and flexibility they need to do their jobs,” he said.

Bush met individually with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and joined other leaders in attending a dinner.

Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, said that Bush brought up a need for “additional defense capabilities and additional defense spending” in the meeting with the secretary-general and also intended to discuss it at the dinner.

In both Baltic countries, yesterday Bush saluted their persistence in eventually prevailing over Soviet occupiers, and he said it was a good example for both Afghanistan and Iraq.