Bush said he pledged U.S. support for efforts by al-Hakim and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to unify Iraq and make it strong enough to defend itself.
"Unifying Iraq is for the elected leaders and society leaders to reject the extremists that are trying to stop the advance of this young democracy," Bush said. "I appreciate very much his eminence's [al-Hakim's] strong position against the murder of innocent life."
Bush said he was proud of the courage Iraqis have shown in the face of sectarian violence and provocations by militants trying to destabilize the country by taking advantage of old hatreds between its Sunni and Shi'ite factions.
But so far, Bush said, the effort by both Iraq and the United States has fallen short.
"I told him [al-Hakim] that we're not satisfied with the pace of progress in Iraq and that we want to continue to work with the sovereign government of Iraq to accomplish our mutual objective, which is a free country that can govern itself, sustain itself, and defend itself, a free country which will serve as an ally in the war against the extremists and radicals and terrorists," he said.
A Rejection Of Regional Plan
Bush's Republican Party lost control of Congress in the U.S. general elections a month ago. Since then, there have been expectations that Bush may change his Iraq strategy. Evidence of that came shortly after the election, when the White House announced that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the architect of the Iraq war, would resign.
There also have been suggestions that Bush convene a conference of Middle Eastern leaders to help resolve Iraq's sectarian strife. But today, al-Hakim rejected the idea that anyone but Iraqis should determine his country's fate.
"Therefore we believe that the Iraqi issue should be solved by the Iraqis with the help of friends everywhere," al-Hakim said. "But we reject any attempts to have a regional or international role in solving the Iraqi issue. We cannot bypass the [internal Iraqi] political process. Iraq should be in a position to solve Iraqi problems."
Al-Hakim said the Iraqi government, with U.S. support, is perfectly capable of developing its own strategy for unifying the country and resolving the differences between warring factions, despite the gloomy characterizations of pessimists.
"We see the attempts to defame and distort the situation in Iraq, not taking into consideration the democratic steps that that country has taken," al-Hakim said. "Writing the constitution and establishing a state that depends heavily on the constitution, that it is unified and that it is strong. There are attempts to show the sectarian strife in an attempt to weaken the position of Iraq."
According to al-Hakim, the interests of the United States, Iraq, and the entire Middle East are linked. He said if the interests of the Iraqi people are ignored, efforts to pacify his country would "backfire" and harm United States’ and Middle East interests, as well.
Iraq's Shi'a make up a majority of the Iraqi population, and they dominate the country's parliament. Bush has tried to get Iraq's Sunnis more involved in the political process, and will meet later this month with Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a Sunni.
RFE/RL Iraq Report
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