Washington, 10 January 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Bush said 2006 would be a year of progress in bolstering Iraq's police forces and improving its economy. And he urged Iraqis to unite under the new government they elected last month.
But in his speech to a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Bush said he expects the Iraqis eventually will work together in relative harmony, despite some likely setbacks.
"Many of the institutions and traditions we take for granted in America -- from our party structures to our centuries' experience with peaceful transitions of power -- are new to Iraq," he said. "So we shouldn't be surprised if Iraqis make some mistakes and face setbacks in their effort to build a government that unites the Iraqi people."
The president added, "Despite the obstacles they face, Iraqis have shown they can come together for the sake of national unity."
More Training For Police
Iraqis voted on 15 December for a new parliament. The results have yet to be announced, but the country's majority Shi’ite Muslims are expected to dominate the legislature. Still, Iraqi Sunnis participated in the election in greater numbers than they did to elect the interim government that was formed a year ago.
Bush's speech comes as new U.S. public-opinion polls show his approval ratings at or just below 40 percent -- about the same as they were two months ago. The surveys show continued frustration at the loss of American lives and the U.S. military's inability to stop the persistent insurgency.
A major key to securing Iraq, Bush said, is improving the country's police: the special forces, border guards, and what the president called local "station" police. Already, he said, there are 19,000 members of these forces -- close to his goal for internal forces -- and he promised to accelerate their training.
Specifically, Bush said that starting this year, local police in Iraq would get the same kind of training that was provided to police in the Balkans. The training would be conducted by police from around the world, including the United States.
Bush also spoke about the forces who are being trained to carry out specialized law enforcement missions. He noted that some of these units have recently received some unfavorable publicity.
"Many of these special police forces are professional. They represent all aspects of society. But recently, some have been accused of committing abuses against Iraqi civilians," he said. "That's unacceptable. That's unacceptable to the United States government, it's unacceptable to the Iraqi government as well. And Iraqi leaders are committed to stopping these abuses. We must ensure that the police understand that their mission is to serve the cause of a free Iraq, not to address old grievances by taking justice into their own hands."
Bush said that these units would get intense training in ethics and human rights to ensure there is no recurrence of these abuses.
A Call To Forgive Debt
On the economy, Bush said Baghdad this year will begin eliminating the subsidy it gives for gasoline. He said the extremely low cost of fuel in Iraq leads to black-market sales and other corruption. And, he said, it drains from the federal budget money that more properly should be spent on schools, hospitals, and other essential infrastructure.
Bush also urged other nations to forgive all or part of the international debt Iraq incurred before President Saddam Hussein was deposed.
"Last month, for example, Slovakia announced it plans to forgive 100 percent of Iraq's $145 million debt,” he said. “This makes Slovakia only the third country -- along with the United States and Malta -- to write off Iraqi debt completely. More nations should do the same so the Iraqi people are not held back by the crushing burden of debt accumulated by Saddam Hussein."
Despite his prodding of other nations, Bush's chief audience for this speech was American, and his chief goal was to restore support for his efforts in Iraq. He said he welcomed constructive criticism, but disparaged what he called "irresponsible" opponents of the war.
Bush said the only restriction on political speech in the United States is "the judgment of the American people." He urged Americans to demand that their leaders abandon partisanship and debate the war honorably.