By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
June 15, 2006
In the past week, Bush has grabbed hold of the very issue that threatens to bury his presidency, keeping the 3-year-old war at the top of the nation's agenda.
Seizing upon the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, and the completion of the new Iraqi Cabinet, Bush this week convened a meeting of his top foreign policy advisers at Camp David, took a high-stakes trip to Baghdad and invited reporters to the Rose Garden to ask him questions about Iraq.
On a day when Democrats had hoped that attention would be on their program for a "new direction" for America, Washington was instead focused on Iraq. In fact, Democrats canceled their planned town hall meeting to outline their domestic agenda because the president summoned House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, among others, to the White House to brief them on his trip.
Bush has steadfastly refused to talk about a timetable for removing U.S. troops and has stopped talking about the number of Iraqi security forces that are being trained to gain control of the embattled nation.
At his Wednesday morning news conference, Bush instead spoke in unusual detail about the steps the United States is taking to assist the Iraqi government, from improving security and boosting oil and electricity production to training judges, sending Treasury Department officials to offer their advice on the economy and establishing an Internal Affairs Bureau to "root out corruption."
The president also told reporters he expects Republicans to keep their majorities in the House and Senate and previewed an argument that seems likely to become a refrain during the campaign.
"There is an interesting debate in the Democrat Party about how quick to pull out of Iraq," Bush said dismissively. "Pulling out of Iraq before we accomplish the mission will make the world a more dangerous place. It's bad policy."
Bush said that among Iraqi leaders there "are concerns about whether or not the United States will stand with this government, and I can understand why."
In a clear reference to Democrats such as his 2004 opponent Sen. John Kerry, who has called for the United States to set a date for withdrawal, Bush said: "The willingness of some to say that 'if we're in power, we'll withdraw on a set timetable' concerns people in Iraq, because they understand our coalition forces provide a sense of stability."
For his part, Bush said emphatically, "Don't count on us leaving before the mission is complete. ... Don't count on American politics forcing my hand because it's not going to happen."
Bush's chief political aide Karl Rove was more combative earlier this week in New Hampshire when he ridiculed Kerry and Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., both decorated war veterans who voted in 2002 to support the use of force in Iraq, but are now calling for troop withdrawal.
Rove said the two are typical of Democrats who "are ready to give the green light to go to war, but when it gets tough, and when it gets difficult, they fall back on that party's old pattern of cutting and running. They may be with you at the first shots, but they are not going to be with you for the last, tough battles."
"If Murtha had his way," Rove said, "American troops would have been gone by the end of April, and we wouldn't have gotten Zarqawi."
The attack fits the White House's pattern in previous campaigns when they argued that the opposition party cannot be trusted to complete the mission in Iraq or protect Americans from terrorists.
What is different today is that public opinion, after three years of mounting casualties, has turned against the war, and the president's own standing - which for two years following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks made him the most popular president in modern history - has suffered dramatically.
The killing of Zarqawi appears
to have given Bush and his policy a small lift in the most recently
released polls. Nevertheless, a USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted
last weekend still found slightly more than half of Americans
say it was a mistake to go to war and fewer than 4 in 10 respondents
say they approve of Bush's performance.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
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