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Embattled Bush Pleads For Patience With Iraq

US President George W. Bush (2nd R) meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and combatant commanders in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington 24 January 2007. Bush received a stinging rebuke of his Iraq policy, as a Senate panel condemned his plan to pour more US troops into the war-ravaged country.
by Olivier Knox
Washington (AFP) Jan 24, 2007
US President George W. Bush pleaded late Tuesday with a war-weary US public to give his unpopular Iraq strategy a chance, warning that a US defeat could ignite an "epic battle" engulfing the entire Middle East. "For America, this is a nightmare scenario. For the enemy, this is the objective," Bush said in his annual State of the Union speech, striking a more defiant than downbeat tone despite his mounting political woes.

Two weeks after unveiling a new strategy centered on sending 21,500 more soldiers into battle, the embattled president gave no ground to his critics and urged lawmakers and the US public: "Give it a chance to work."

Bush, fighting to save his presidency and derail pending congressional action against his Iraq plan, also laid out a handful of domestic policies to cut US gasoline use and pollution, expand health care, and reform immigration.

But the chief goal of the 49-minute televised speech was to win a reprieve on Iraq from a skeptical US public and an increasingly hostile US Congress, led by opposition Democrats for the first time in a dozen years.

With his poll numbers mired at record lows, and many Americans dubious that the war launched in March 2003 can be won, Bush insisted that: "On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle."

"So let us find our resolve, and turn events towards victory," he said, as lawmakers prepared to take up symbolic legislation sharply critical of deepening US military involvement in the war.

Mindful that roughly two in three Americans oppose his plan, Bush said that he and US military commanders had looked at all options in Iraq. "In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance for success," he said.

The president also acknowledged a dramatic upsurge in sectarian violence, telling Americans leery of seeing US troops caught in the crossfire: "This is not the fight we entered in Iraq, but it is the fight we are in."

That appeared to be a reversal from Bush's promise, made at an October 25, 2006 press conference, that "Americans have no intention of taking sides in a sectarian struggle or standing in the crossfire between rival factions."

In fact, while Bush tied events in Iraq to the war on terrorism -- which he declared in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks -- he focused on the threat of future sectarian strife.

"If American forces step back before Baghdad is secure, the Iraqi government would be overrun by extremists on all sides," he said.

"We could expect an epic battle between Shia extremists backed by Iran, and Sunni extremists aided by Al-Qaeda and supporters of the old regime. A contagion of violence could spill out across the country, and in time the entire region could be drawn into the conflict," he said.

In answer to global critics who accuse him of neglecting climate change, Bush called for a 20-percent cut in US gasoline use by 2017, a move the White House said would lead to steep cuts in emissions partly blamed for global warming.

He also called for a doubling of US emergency oil reserves by 2027, and made a renewed push for a sweeping immigration reform plan that, with its emphasis on a guest worker program, could draw more support from Democrats than from his own Republicans.

Bush also called for tax code-based health care reforms that seemed to have little chance of becoming law, and vowed to submit spending plans in two weeks that would balance the budget in five years.

He congratulated the Democrats on winning the November 2006 elections, retaking Congress for the first time since 1994, and paid a special tribute to Pelsoi as the first woman speaker of the House.

The official Democratic response to the speech, delivered by Senator Jim Webb -- a Vietnam veteran whose son is a Marine in Iraq -- was tough and blunt.

"The president took us into this war recklessly," said Webb. "The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought, nor does the majority of our military, nor does Congress. We need a new direction."

Webb said the Democrats are calling for "an immediate shift toward strong regionally based diplomacy, a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities and a formula that will in short order allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

He then invoked past Republican presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, describing how the former helped heal domestic class divisions and the latter brought US soldiers home from the Korean war.

"Tonight we are calling on this president to take similar action," Webb said.

"If he does, we will join him. If he does not, we will be showing him the way."

The Bush speech competed for front-page space in many US papers with the Oscar nominations, ice hockey's all-star game on Wednesday, and American football's February 4 Superbowl extravaganza.

The New York Times editorial said that Bush "gave no hint" of fresh policies, offering instead "a tepid menu of ideas that would change little."

The main Washington Post story described Bush as "politically wounded but rhetorically unbowed," while the Los Angeles Times said his domestic plans were "too modest" to "rescue the last quarter of his presidency from irrelevance and patch his tattered legacy."

Japan's defense minister calls Bush 'wrong' on Iraq
Tokyo (AFP) Jan 24 - Japan's defense minister on Wednesday said US President George W. Bush was wrong to invade Iraq and warned that Tokyo could not automatically renew its air force mission to the war-torn country.

The rebuke from one of Washington's closest foreign allies came hours after an embattled Bush used his annual State of the Union address to plead for public support to send more troops to Iraq.

"Mr. Bush went ahead in a situation as if there were nuclear weapons, but I think that decision was wrong," Defense Minister Fumio Kyuma said of the 2003 invasion.

Japan's former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, a close friend of Bush, strongly supported the invasion and took the landmark step of deploying Japanese troops to Iraq.

Koizumi withdrew the troops last year before leaving office. But Japan has continued to deploy its air force, which hauls personnel and goods into Iraq for the US-led coalition and the United Nations.

Kyuma, who has repeatedly criticized US policy over Iraq, said Japan had not decided whether to extend the mission when it expires in July.

"We must look very carefully at what the United Nations will continue to request from Japan. Just because the US decided to reinforce troops does not mean that Japan should do the same. It's not so simple," he said.

"What can Japan do to reconstruct Iraq? Is it impossible without Japan's (Air) Self-Defense Forces? We must look at the overall assessment to give a final decision," he told a news conference.

"If it is necessary, we can extend deployment," he said. "If we think we can entrust responsibility to the private sector, that is also possible."

The government quickly played down the latest attack on US policy from Kyuma, who took office in late September when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe replaced Koizumi.

"Minister Kyuma spoke as a politician," chief government spokesman Yasuhisa Shiozaki said at a press conference. "US authorities have already said that weapons of mass destruction didn't exist (in Iraq), so such a statement is nothing new," he added.

The Iraq deployment marked the first time Japan sent troops overseas since defeat in World War II, when the United States stripped it of its right to maintain a military.

Kyuma rejected Bush's comparisons of Iraq to post-war Japan.

The US president has repeatedly pointed to the alliance with Japan as proof that former adversaries can become allies.

"Just because it worked in Japan does not mean it would work in Iraq," Kyuma said. "It worked in Japan because the US left the emperor system."

US occupation authorities allowed Japan to keep Emperor Hirohito, although he was forced to renounce his divine status.

Kyuma this month became Japan's first defense minister since World War II after Abe's government pushed through a bill to give him cabinet status.

Previously, Japan had a "Defense Agency" with lesser rank than full-fledged ministries. Kyuma reiterated that Japan was not going back down the militarist path.

"By upgrading to a defense ministry, everyone seems to have the illusion that ... Japan is becoming a military power," Kyuma said.

"However, it is performing under the government's limited budget" under which military funding is decreasing, he said. "Also, if we maintain the current constitution, there should be no such worry," he said.

Abe is also seeking to revise the US-imposed 1947 pacifist constitution.

earlier related report
Unswayed by Bush, Democrats urge US pullout from Iraq
by Stephanie Griffith
Washington (AFP) Jan 23 - Democrats on Tuesday accused President George W. Bush of "recklessly" leading America into war in Iraq and called for a withdrawal of US forces, in a blunt rebuttal to the president's annual State of the Union speech.

"This country has patiently endured a mismanaged war for nearly four years," said Senator James Webb, who was designated to deliver the opposition party's rebuttal to the president's key annual address before Congress.

"Many, including myself, warned even before the war began that it was unnecessary, that it would take our energy and attention away from the larger war against terrorism, and that invading and occupying Iraq would leave us strategically vulnerable in the most violent and turbulent corner of the world," Webb said in prepared remarks made available ahead of the speech.

Bush said in his address that he and US military commanders looked at "every possible approach" before deciding to send 21,500 more US soldiers into battle.

"In the end, I chose this course of action because it provides the best chance of success," said the president in advance excerpts released by the White House.

"Many in this chamber understand that America must not fail in Iraq -- because you understand that the consequences of failure would be grievous and far reaching," he said.

Webb, newly-elected as senator from Virginia, came to Congress with a impressive resume on military matters, including a stint as Secretary of the Navy and several years' service as a US marine in Vietnam.

His searing criticism of US Iraq policy -- the centerpiece of the Bush presidency -- came with the Democratically-controlled Congress poised to take up several damning bills amounting to resolutions of no-confidence in the president's handling of Iraq.

Lawmakers have heaped condemnation on the president's unpopular plan to send more troops to quell violence in Iraq, which is to be the subject of Senate hearings Wednesday.

"The president took us into this war recklessly," Webb declared, saying that Bush ignored the counsel even of many of his top advisers in pushing ahead with the invasion.

"We are now, as a nation, held hostage to the predictable -- and predicted -- disarray that has followed," the Democratic lawmaker said.

"The majority of the nation no longer supports the way this war is being fought -- nor does the majority of our military," he said. "We need a new direction."

Still, Webb cautioned against "a precipitous withdrawal that ignores the possibility of further chaos" and urged the president to make an "immediate shift toward strong regionally-based diplomacy -- a policy that takes our soldiers off the streets of Iraq's cities and a formula that will, in short order, allow our combat forces to leave Iraq."

If the president's remarks did little to sway Democrats, political pundit Larry Sabato said they were also unlikely to convince a cynical public whose patience is spent by continual setbacks in Iraq.

"A lot of people are so turned off, they're not even going to watch it," Sabato said ahead of Bush's speech, other than "for the atmospherics."

The president's wide-ranging speech also touched upon a number of domestic initiatives, including a sweeping new energy conservation plan and a new proposal on jumpstarting a long-stalled immigration reform plan.

He called for energy conservation measures and stepped up efforts in the area of reducing emissions deemed responsible for global warming.

Sabato told AFP however that most of those proposals are likely to be dead on arrival in a Democratically controlled Congress.

"Remember one thing: Republicans will be watching this thing disproportionately," said Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, saying the few minds were like to be changed by the speech.

As far as the president's domestic proposals go, they "won't pass in a Democratic Congress," Sabato said.

"He can veto their plans, but they're not about to pass his. His domestic presidency is basically over."

Source: Agence France-Presse

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