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Iraq: Bush Calls Country Convergence Point For Al-Qaeda, Iran Threats

U.S. President George W. Bush said things are 'on the right track' in Iraq (epa) President George W. Bush says Iraq has become the point of convergence for two of the greatest threats the United States is facing -- Al-Qaeda and Iran.

In a White House speech on April 10, Bush said a U.S. failure in the Iraq war would lead to key victories for Al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime. He said the Taliban in Afghanistan also stands to gain from a U.S. failure in Iraq.

Bush argued that although Iran and Al-Qaeda represent different threats, they share a single goal in Iraq: defeating the United States. Iran does so, he said, by supporting Shi’ite groups to expand its influence, while Al-Qaeda sponsors Sunni insurgents.

That is why, Bush said, it is important for the United States to remain in Iraq until stability can be assured.

The U.S. president said he would order an indefinite halt to troop withdrawals after July, when the last of the so-called “surge” brigades will return home. He said the troop surge he ordered last year has achieved its goals and that things are “on the right track."

The move guarantees a large U.S. military presence in Iraq until Bush's term in office ends in January 2009.

Bush made the announcement in Washington on April 10 after hearing the recommendations of his top commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, who has been testifying before Congress this week on the status of the war.

"By July 31, the number of U.S. combat brigades in Iraq will be down by 25 percent from last year," Bush said. "Beyond that, General Petraeus says he'll need time to consolidate his forces and assess how this reduced American presence will affect conditions on the ground before making measured recommendations on further reductions. And I've told him he will have all the time he needs."

'Prospect Of Success'

In January 2007, Bush ordered the deployment of additional five brigade combat teams -- around 30,000 extra troops -- with the aim of helping reduce sectarian violence and giving Iraqi officials what Bush called "breathing space" to achieve long-term stability goals.

In his latest comments, Bush said the strategy had worked and has “renewed and revived the prospect of success.”

"With the surge, a major strategic shift has occurred," Bush said. "Fifteen months ago, America and the Iraqi government were on the defensive. Today, we have the initiative."

As proof, Bush said military and civilian deaths are down, and the Iraqi government has made progress on the goals Washington asked it to meet.

Last year, Washington asked Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government to meet goals that included taking responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November 2007, passing legislation to share oil revenues among all Iraqis, and holding provincial elections in 2007.

According to the U.S. military, attacks have dropped 60 percent since the surge began, and deaths from sectarian violence are down by 90 percent. But this year, violence has increased due to activity by Al-Qaeda In Iraq in the north and fighting between Shi'a in the south.

Iraq has taken security responsibility for half of its 18 provinces. Legislation to share Iraq's oil revenue equitably among Iraqis is stalled. Provincial elections are not scheduled until October of this year.

The Costs Of War

Now in its sixth year, the war in Iraq has claimed the lives of more than 4,000 U.S. troops and cost more than $500 billion. An estimated 80,000 Iraqi civilians have died, and 5 million have fled their homes.

Bush acknowledged that the costs of the war “have been high.” But he said compared to other conflicts in U.S. history, the percentage of defense spending in the overall national budget is low.

He said Iraq’s economic progress means that it could begin sharing the economic burden of the reconstruction effort.

"With Iraq's economy growing, oil revenues on the rise and its capital investment expanding, our economic role in the country is changing," Bush said. "Iraqis, in their recent budget, would outspend us on reconstruction by more than 10 to 1. And American funding for large-scale reconstruction projects is approaching zero. Our share of Iraq's security costs will drop as well as Iraqis pay for the vast majority of their own army and police. And that's the way it should be. Ultimately, we expect Iraq to shoulder the full burden of these costs."

Politically, Bush said progress is coming from the “bottom up,” as tribal leaders in the provinces begin to rebuild local political structures and assume more responsibility. That has led to progress in Baghdad, Bush said, where legislators are showing a new willingness to “compromise on behalf of the nation.”

Warning To Iran

Bush said he will be sending his top diplomats, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a tour of Middle Eastern countries to urge them to engage with Iraq and bring it back into the international community.

Bush said Iran must decide whether to live in peace with its neighbor or “continue to arm, train, and fund illegal militant groups” in Iraq, and he warned Tehran against making “the wrong choice.”

"The regime in Tehran also has a choice to make: to live in peace with its neighbor, enjoy strong economic and cultural and religious ties, or it could continue to arm and train and fund illegal militant groups, which are terrorizing the Iraqi people and turning them against Iran," Bush said. "If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq. Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners."

Bush ended his brief remarks by saying that “the war is difficult but not endless.”

The Democratic opposition leader in the U.S. Senate, Harry Reid, took issue with that assessment, however. "The president still does not understand that America’s limited resources cannot support this endless war that he’s gotten us involved in,” he said.

Reid pointed out that after the last of the surge troops are called home in July, there will still be more U.S. troops in Iraq than before the surge began. He accused Bush of leaving “the tough decisions” to the next U.S. president.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat, California), echoed those words, saying: "The president has taken us into a failed war. He's taken us deeply into debt and that debt has taken us into recession. We need some answers."

Meanwhile, the two Democratic presidential contenders, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have both pledged to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq if they are elected.

Clinton says the United States could start withdrawing troops within 60 days of her taking office next January. Obama has promised that if elected he would immediately begin withdrawing troops in a process that could last 16 months, leaving only a small counterterrorism force and soldiers to guard the U.S. Embassy.

RFE/RL Iraq Report

RFE/RL Iraq Report

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