Iraq Remains Focus of Camp David Strategy Session

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President Bush holds a second day of meetings on Iraq. He met Monday with advisers to seek ways to bolster the fledgling Iraqi government. Tuesday, a video conference is scheduled with the Iraqi cabinet.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

At Camp David today, President Bush holds the second of two days of meetings on Iraq. The President said yesterday that the success of the Iraqi government depends on its ability to provide security and basic services. And he wants to make sure the fledgling Baghdad regime can do that.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA reporting:

These meetings at Camp David can be seen as an effort to capitalize on a pair of positive stories out of Iraq last week: the death of al-Qaida's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and the announcement that the final key positions in the Iraqi cabinet had been filled. Yesterday morning, the President spoke briefly with reporters in a conference room at Camp David. He introduced U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad who was in Baghdad, but who joined through a video teleconference.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We left off when you were talking about the way forward in Iraq and the inception of this new government.

GONYEA: Khalilzad replied…

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): We have the major success in bringing about a government of national unity in Iraq, a government in which all communities are represented. We got the Prime Minister, who is a very much hands, a good chief executive with good abilities to make decisions, prioritizing what is needed in terms of what Iraq must do.

GONYEA: The White House is using this war council at Camp David, scheduled to continue today, to demonstrate the U.S. commitment to Iraq, even as polls in the U.S. show widespread discontent with the war and the President's handling of the mission. The White House says the meeting will continue today with a satellite hookup linking Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki and his cabinet, with U.S. officials at the presidential retreat.

President Bush looked ahead to that session.

President BUSH: We'll be meeting with the new government via CIVICS(ph). And that will be a very interesting experience for all of us to be able to talk to our respective counterparts.

GONYEA: Going into yesterday's meeting, there was a lot of discussion about comments Sunday by General George Casey, who is in charge of the Iraq mission. He says a draw down of U.S. troop levels could begin in just months. The White House, however, did not want that to be the focus of coverage of this summit, so the President downplayed the issue.

President BUSH: Whatever we do will be based upon the conditions on the ground. And whatever we do will be toward a strategy of victory.

GONYEA: In the morning yesterday, the President met with his entire National Security team. In the afternoon session, additional cabinet members were there to discuss other things the U.S. can do to assure the Iraqi government will succeed. Mr. Bush said they spent considerable time talking about the Iraqi infrastructure, the need to have reliable electricity throughout the country, and about the need to get the Iraqi oil industry up to speed, boosting production.

President BUSH: My own view is that the government ought to use the oil as a way to unite the country, and ought to think about having, you know, a tangible fund for the people, so the people have faith in the central government.

GONYEA: The President offered no specifics on how such a fund would work. But this session was about putting ideas on the table, searching for new ways of solving what one top White House official, Dan Bartlett, described yesterday as the, quote, “Very serious and vexing challenge Iraq still presents.”

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

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