Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
President Bush answers questions at a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday.
President Bush answers questions at a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Bush, back from a visit to Iraq, said Wednesday that violence there will never be eliminated but that a security crackdown and new intelligence on terrorism are contributing to "steady progress."
In a Rose Garden news conference barely more than six hours after his return from Baghdad, a buoyant Bush insisted that U.S. troops would remain there until Iraqi forces can do the job on their own.
And while he said he recognized that calls for bringing home many of the 130,000 U.S. troops now in Iraq would only increase as the November elections draw nearer, pulling out too soon would "make the world a more dangerous place. It's bad policy."
Bush said he assured worried Iraqi leaders during his 5 1/2 hour visit Tuesday that he would not bow to political pressure and bring troops home prematurely.
"If we stand down too soon, it won't enable us to achieve our objectives," the president said. He said those goals include an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself.
The president said that any expectation of "zero violence" in Iraq was unreasonable. "That's not going to happen," Bush said.
But he also said that Iraqi and coalition forces were stepping up their activities against insurgents, in part by using new intelligence gathered in raids following the killing of top Iraqi terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi last week.
"We got new intelligence from those raids which will enable us to keep the pressure on the foreigners and the local Iraqis who are killing innocent lives," he said.
The president also said that a crackdown in Baghdad ordered by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which commenced Wednesday, offered the promise of reducing the violence that has plagued the Iraqi capital.
That crackdown sent tens of thousands of Iraqi police and soldiers patrolling Iraqi streets, searching cars and securing roads.
With al-Maliki's new unity government in place, "The progress will be steady toward a goal that has clearly been defined," Bush said.
Bush's lightning trip was cloaked in extreme secrecy and security. Only a few top aides knew about the trip ahead of time — not even most members of his Cabinet.
As Bush left, his plane sat in total darkness on the runway and lifted off with no running lights. Air Force One had not been completely refueled so that it could get up high faster. As a result, a refueling stop was required en route back to Washington and it was nearing dawn Wednesday when Bush made it back to the White House.
Bush defended the tactics, including not even telling al-Maliki about the visit until just five minutes before he and the Iraqi prime minister met in Baghdad.
"It's a security concern because I'm a high value target for some," Bush said. "Iraq's a dangerous place."
He said the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces would depend on how well the Iraqi people accept al-Maliki's new unity government.
Enough American forces would remain in Iraq "for the government to succeed," he said.
On another subject, Bush was asked about three suicides last week among terrorism suspects being held at the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"I'd like to close Guantanamo. I also recognize that we're holding some people that are darn dangerous," he said. "Eventually, these people will have trials and they will have counsel."
Human rights organizations and many foreign leaders have urged the United States to shut down the prison.
"I was inspired to be able to visit the capital of a free and Democratic Iraq," Bush said. Of his first direct contact with the newly named al-Maliki, Bush said, "I saw firsthand the strength of his character and his deep determination to succeed."
Responding to growing pressure at home to bring back a substantial number of U.S. troops, Bush said an exit strategy would continue to be driven by "events on the ground."
He said key troop level decisions would be based on recommendations from Gen. George Casey, the top general on the ground.
Earlier, speaking with reporters who traveled with him aboard Air Force One, Bush said, "I am going to do what I think is right" when it comes to deciding on troop levels.
"When I tell you these decisions are going to be made by Gen. Casey, I mean it."
Several proposals were before Congress to speed up a withdrawal of U.S. troops, including one by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Bush's 2004 election rival, to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by year's end.
Bush told reporters in his Rose Garden news conference,"My message to the enemy is, don't count on us leaving before we succeed," Bush said.
As to war critics, Bush said, "my message to the critics is, we listen very carefully, and we adjust when needed to adjust."
Bush declined to draw any parallels between the U.S. presence in Iraq and its involvement three decades ago in Vietnam. "I did the right thing in Iraq," he said flatly.