Bush reaffirmed plans to hand over full sovereignty to an interim government in Iraq on 30 June. "On 30 June, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist, and will not be replaced,” he said. “The occupation will end, and Iraqis will govern their own affairs."
He also promised to demolish the infamous Abu Ghurayb prison outside Baghdad, where U.S. soldiers abused inmates.
Bush warned that insurgents may try to step up efforts to thwart the handover of power. But he said they will fail. "Terrorists know that Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror, and we must understand that as well," he said. "The return of tyranny to Iraq would be an unprecedented terrorist victory and a cause for killers to rejoice."
Bush cited the recent assassination of Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad, also known as Izz al-Din Salim, who held the rotating presidency of the Iraqi Governing Council. "This crime shows our enemy's intention to prevent Iraqi self-government, even if that means killing a lifelong Iraqi patriot and a faithful Muslim," he said. "Mr. Salim was assassinated by terrorists seeking the return of tyranny and the death of democracy."
The president said U.S. military forces will remain in Iraq after the 30 June handover, and that U.S. troop levels will stay at the current level of 138,000 soldiers for as long as necessary. He said the troops will operate under U.S. command as part of a multinational force to be authorized by a new UN Security Council resolution, the text of which was being circulated yesterday.
Bush outlined five steps “to help Iraq achieve democracy and freedom”: "We will hand over authority to a sovereign Iraqi government, help establish security, continue rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, encourage more international support, and move toward a national election that will bring forward new leaders empowered by the Iraqi people."
Other than the plan to tear down Abu Ghurayb prison, critics say Bush's speech only restated long-standing U.S. policy and did not offer any new thinking or proposals. "The New York Times" noted that Bush "risks appearing detached from the violence and chaos that has threatened to engulf Iraq."
Democratic Senator John Kerry, who will face Bush in November's presidential elections, said he saw little new in Bush's speech and urged the president to turn his words into action. He said Bush should "reach out to our allies so the United States doesn't have to continue to 'go it alone' and to create the stability necessary to allow the people of Iraq to move forward."
In his speech, Bush said the interim Iraqi government will have complete authority after the handover of power. "This interim government will exercise full sovereignty until national elections are held. America fully supports [UN envoy] Mr. [Lakhdar] Brahimi's efforts, and I have instructed the Coalition Provisional Authority to assist him in every way possible," he said. "In preparation for sovereignty, many functions of government have already been transferred. Twelve government ministries are currently under the direct control of Iraqis."
Perhaps the most dramatic part of Bush's speech was the announcement that the Abu Ghurayb prison near Baghdad will be torn down. Photographs and videotapes of U.S. soldiers abusing and sexually humiliating Iraqi inmates at the prison have undermined U.S. efforts in Iraq.
"America will fund the construction of a modern maximum security prison. When that prison is completed, detainees at Abu Ghurayb will be relocated. Then, with the approval of the Iraqi government, we will demolish the Abu Ghurayb prison as a fitting symbol of Iraq's new beginning," he said.
As Bush campaigns for the November election, polls show the public's trust in the administration's Iraq policies has hit an all-time low, as has Bush's own popularity ratings. A poll by CBS News indicated 41 percent of the U.S. public approve of the job Bush is doing as president, while 52 percent disapprove.
Nearly 800 U.S. troops have now been killed in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003 -- almost 600 of them in combat.