Bush says U.S. will meet Iraq deadline

June 30 handover `firm' despite growing violence, White House declares

April 06, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush declared yesterday that the United States will stick to its June 30 deadline for ending the U.S.-led occupation and returning political power to Iraqis, despite spreading violence and growing doubts that Iraq will have achieved stability by then.

"The intention is to make sure the deadline remains the same. I believe we can transfer authority by June 30. We're working toward that date," Bush said, referring to plans to hand over political sovereignty while keeping a large U.S. military force in Iraq. "The date remains firm."

Questions about U.S. plans to transfer sovereignty have mounted over the past week after gruesome anti-American attacks in the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah and the spread of the violent insurgency into elements of Iraq's majority Shiite population, triggering battles in which seven Americans died.

The senior Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin of Michigan, joined the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday in urging the president to consider postponing the transfer, saying the United States shouldn't be "boxed in" by an arbitrary date.

Levin, speaking in Detroit, said that the June 30 date "now has a life of its own," and that failure to end the U.S.-led occupation could pose "a great danger." But handing over sovereignty to a government that lacks Iraqi or international support could be even more dangerous, he said, and would "provide powerful propaganda to those who would terrorize us and the world."

The president acknowledged that much remains unsettled less than three months before the handover date: U.S. officials still don't know what form of government they will be turning power over to once the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority ceases operation. And Bush has not decided on his choice for U.S. ambassador, who will become the top American official in Iraq after the departure of L. Paul Bremer III.

Reflecting a view often expressed by U.S. military officials, Bush attributed the upsurge in violence to a drive by militants to disrupt the transition of authority and halt progress toward democratic rule in Iraq.

"The closer we come to the deadline, the more likely it is [that] people will challenge our will," Bush told reporters during a visit to North Carolina. "In other words, it provides a convenient excuse to attack."

Questions about the handover date coincided yesterday with fresh evidence that Iraq is increasingly becoming a political problem for Bush. A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that 40 percent of Americans approve of the way he is handling the situation in Iraq, down from 59 percent in January.

While 57 percent still support the decision to go to war in Iraq, "public attitudes toward most aspects of the U.S. mission in Iraq have turned more negative since January," according to the center's director, Andrew Kohut. Only one-third of Americans now believe that Bush has a clear plan for Iraq, and 44 percent favor bringing U.S. troops home, though 50 percent favor keeping them in Iraq until a stable government is established.

The deadline had been widely seen as benefiting Bush's re-election effort by demonstrating that the United States is pursuing a plan to extricate itself from Iraq and shift responsibility to Iraqis. The date also reflects pressure from Iraqis and from European allies for an end to the U.S.-led occupation, which has generated resentment toward the United States in Iraq and around the world.

Before the handover, the various Iraqi factions are supposed to fashion a government to replace the governing council and assume sovereignty. So far, little progress has been made. And no formal agreement has been reached for keeping U.S. and other coalition forces in Iraq until the country is ready to provide its own security.

The transfer would be in some ways symbolic, because the United States plans to keep at least 100,000 troops in the country even without a formal agreement with Iraqis, drawing authority from United Nations resolutions, and to set up the largest U.S. embassy in the world. This huge presence, plus the economic impact of billions of dollars in U.S. spending on reconstruction, will ensure powerful American influence.

"There's not going to be any difference in our military posture on July 1 from what it is on June 30, except that we will be there at the invitation of a sovereign Iraqi government, which I am sure will want us to stay there until killers like the ones who perpetrated these atrocities in Fallujah are brought under control," Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz told reporters on Capitol Hill.

Facing resistance to its ideas on how to pick a transitional government, the Bush administration has shifted responsibility to a U.N. team led by Lakhdar Brahimi, who played a leading role in forming a new government in Afghanistan. Brahimi, who arrived in Baghdad on Sunday, met yesterday with members of the governing council.

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