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U.S.: Bush Sees Iraq War Sparking Democratic Wave Across Middle East

In what White House officials called a "major speech," U.S. President George W. Bush set forth an ambitious, optimistic vision for what the Middle East could look like after a U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Washington, 27 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says he believes an American-led war to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would launch a wave of democratic reform across the Middle East, culminating in definitive peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

In a nationally televised speech last night to conservative officials and scholars in Washington, Bush called Hussein a "direct and growing threat" to America but made no formal announcement about whether a decision has been made to invade Iraq. But, in what amounted to a strong sign that war may be nearing, Bush laid out a vision of peace, prosperity, and democracy in the Middle East once Hussein is removed from power.

Critics have questioned the notion of trying to export democracy to a region dominated by authoritarian governments. But Bush said Muslims everywhere are eager for freedom and democratic reform: "It is presumptuous and insulting to suggest that a whole region of the world, or the one-fifth of humanity that is Muslim, is somehow untouched by the most basic aspirations of life."

Bush said a war in Iraq, far from destabilizing the region as many have said, would spark people in the Mideast to achieve those aspirations: "A new regime in Iraq would serve as a dramatic and inspiring example of freedom for other nations in the region."

Bush said it won't be easy to bring democracy to Iraq, but he said trying is better than sitting by idly as Hussein develops weapons of mass destruction, oppresses his people, and directly supports terrorism, including giving money to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel.

The president said rebuilding Iraq would be worth the price of a "sustained commitment from many nations, including our own."

He said the U.S. has no intention of determining the precise form of Iraq's new government. "That choice belongs to the Iraqi people," he said, and all would have a voice in any new government. But he said Washington will ensure that "one brutal dictator is not replaced by another."

But wary of the world and the region seeing Washington as an occupying power, Bush said America would leave Iraq as soon as its efforts are no longer necessary. He said American war victories have often left great accomplishments in their wake, including democracies in Germany and Japan after World War II.

He said Iraq would be no different, adding that democratic ferment is already bubbling all over the Middle East: "Arab intellectuals have called on Arab governments to address the 'freedom gap' so their peoples can fully share in the progress of our times. Leaders in the region speak of a new Arab charter that champions internal reform, greater political participation, economic openness, and free trade. And from Morocco to Bahrain and beyond, nations are taking genuine steps toward political reform."

Bush said that removing Hussein would send a signal to similar regimes that their support for terrorism would not be tolerated. He said it would also eliminate direct support to Palestinian terrorists by Hussein.

Bush said that with those terrorist pressures relieved from the Middle East, the Palestinians themselves would be free to choose a better leadership that truly seeks peace and the well-being of its people.

In turn, Bush added: "The new government of Israel, as the terror threat is removed and security improves, will be expected to support the creation of a viable Palestinian state."

Bush called on the United Nations, where he faces stiff opposition to war in Iraq, to embrace the opportunity to reshape the Middle East through a major commitment to postwar Iraq.

He said the UN has a duty to send a signal to "outlaw regimes that in this new century, the boundaries of civilized behavior will be respected." Protecting those boundaries, he said, "carries a cost."