U.S. President George W. Bush, facing growing doubts at home about the U.S. effort in Iraq, sought to rally support from the American people and the international community last night for rebuilding Iraq and continuing the war on terrorism.
Washington, 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a nationally televised address from the White House, U.S. President George W. Bush urged nations to lay aside their past opposition to the Iraq war and back America's effort to build a stable, democratic Iraq.
In a somber 15-minute speech last night, Bush called Iraq the "central front" in the U.S. war on terrorism and vowed America will not leave until it has "finished the job" of setting Iraq and Afghanistan on the road to stability: "The triumph of democracy and tolerance in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and beyond would be a grave setback to international terrorism."
Bush said he will ask Congress for $87 billion in emergency funding to bankroll operations in Iraq over the next year. A small part of that would also go to Afghanistan.
He said the funds would help both countries achieve stability -- and thus improve American security -- by bolstering their internal security, restoring basic services such as water and electricity, as well as building schools, roads, and hospitals.
Bush offered no timetable on the withdrawal from Iraq of U.S. troops, which he said currently number 130,000. But he urged the international community to back a new, U.S.-proposed United Nations resolution that would authorize a multinational peacekeeping force for Iraq under American command.
Without directly citing France, Russia, or Germany -- which opposed the Iraq war -- Bush said it is time for the international community to drop its differences over Iraq and unite on an urgent mission -- that is, stabilizing and rebuilding Iraq: "Members of the United Nations now have an opportunity and the responsibility to assume a broader role in assuring that Iraq becomes a free and democratic nation."
France and Germany have greeted the proposed UN resolution coolly, saying they want the UN to be given more authority than what Bush is offering before they will take part in the Iraqi occupation.
Bush also did not speak about how close Washington may be to finding weapons of mass destruction, the main justification for invading Iraq.
The address was Bush's first major speech since he stood on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln on 1 May and declared an end to major combat operations.
Since then, more Americans have died in Iraq than were killed during the war. The overall death count is 284 U.S. troops -- 147 since 1 May, including those killed by both hostile fire (67) and in accidents (80).
Meanwhile, terrorists have hit major targets in Iraq in recent weeks, including the Jordanian Embassy and the UN headquarters in Baghdad, and the Imam Ali Mosque in the southern city of Al-Najaf.
Bush blamed the attacks on remnants from the regime of Saddam Hussein and foreign terrorists. He said didn't know to what extent the two groups collaborated, but added that their goal is clear: "There's more at work in these attacks than blind rage. The terrorists have a strategic goal: They want us to leave Iraq before our work is done. They want to shake the will of the civilized world."
But the regular attacks on U.S. troops, coupled with the rising cost of the U.S.-led occupation -- which comes to some $4 billion a week -- have put a dent in Bush's popularity ratings, just as Democratic contenders have begun campaigning for presidential elections late next year.
A recent poll (CNN/"Time" magazine) finds that Bush's approval rating has dropped to 52 percent, down from the 60 to 70 percent range he had held in recent months.
Hoping to bide time, Bush urged Americans to be patient as their country seeks to carry out the challenging task of transforming Iraq into a peace-loving democracy.
Speaking just four days before the second anniversary of the 11 September attacks on America, the president argued that Americans can no longer return to the illusion of "false comfort" that they enjoyed before Islamic terrorists killed some 3,000 people -- the worst such attack on American soil.
He said America had only invited terrorist attacks in the past when it showed weakness by pulling out of peacekeeping operations in Somalia in the early 1990s and Lebanon in the 1980s.
"We have learned that terrorist attacks are not caused by the use of strength. They are invited by the perception of weakness," he said. "And the surest way to avoid attacks on our own people is to engage the enemy where he lives and plans. We are fighting that enemy in Iraq and Afghanistan today, so that we do not meet him again in our own streets, in our own cities."
Of the $87 billion he will ask Congress for, Bush said $66 billion will be for U.S. military deployment and intelligence operations. A small portion -- perhaps $1 billion -- is expected to be reserved for Afghanistan.
The Democratic opposition in Congress has said it will not simply write Bush a blank check for Iraq. Democrats say they will press Bush to provide details on how long he intends for America to stay in Iraq, and how the money will be spent, before they vote to approve the funding.