By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 19, 2007 – The United States' most pressing concern in Iraq is helping the Iraqis secure their capital, President Bush said here today on the fourth anniversary of the beginning of U.S. operations there. "Until Baghdad's citizens feel secure in their own homes and neighborhoods, it will be difficult for Iraqis to make further progress toward political reconciliation or economic rebuilding -- steps necessary for Iraq to build a democratic society," Bush said in a brief news conference at the White House.
Bush met earlier this morning with his top advisors on Iraq: Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of Multinational Force Iraq; and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. Petraeus and Khalilzad participated via secure videoteleconference from Baghdad.
Shortly before his news conference, Bush discussed the Iraq security situation with the country's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, via VTC.
"Prime Minister Maliki and General Petraeus emphasized that the Baghdad security plan is still in its early stages and success will take months, not days or weeks," the president said.
"Yet those on the ground are seeing hopeful signs," he added. "The Iraqi government has completed the deployment of three Iraqi army brigades to the capital, where they've joined the seven Iraqi army brigades and nine national police brigades that were already in the area. The Iraqi government has also lifted restrictions that once prevented Iraqi and coalition forces from going into areas like Sadr City. American and Iraqi forces have established joint security stations. Those stations are scattered throughout Baghdad, and they're helping Iraqis reclaim their neighborhoods from the terrorists and extremists."
Though fewer than half the 21,500 additional combat troops requested have arrived in Baghdad, operations are yielding some successes, Bush said. U.S. and Iraqi troops have carried out "aggressive operations" against Shiite and Sunni extremists and against al Qaeda terrorists, and they've uncovered large caches of weapons and destroyed two major car-bomb factories on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Bush praised recent actions by Iraqi leaders. "Last month, Iraq's Council of Ministers approved a law that would share oil revenues among Iraqi people. The Iraqi legislature passed a $41 billion budget that includes $10 billion for reconstruction and capital improvements. And last week Prime Minister Maliki visited Ramadi, a city in the Sunni heartland, to reach out to local Sunni tribal leaders," Bush said.
"There's been good progress," he added. "There's a lot more work to be done, and Iraq's leaders must continue to work to meet the benchmarks they have set forward."
The president urged members of Congress to pass the emergency war-funding bill they are considering. "They have a responsibility to ensure that this bill provides the funds and the flexibility that our troops need to accomplish their mission," Bush said.
"It can be tempting to look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude our best option is to pack up and go home. That may be satisfying in the short run, but I believe the consequences for American security would be devastating," he said. "If American forces were to step back from Baghdad before it is more secure, a contagion of violence could spill out across the entire country."
Bush warned that violence in Iraq could engulf the region. "The terrorists could emerge from the chaos with a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they had in Afghanistan, which they used to plan the attacks of September the 11th, 2001," he said. "For the safety of the American people, we cannot allow this to happen."
Bush quoted Petraeus in praising U.S. servicemembers serving in Iraq. "He sees in our troops, quote, 'a true will to win and a sincere desire to help our Iraqi partners achieve success,'" the president said.
"Four years after this war began, the fight is difficult, but it can be won," he continued. "It will be won if we have the courage and resolve to see it through.
Bush thanked military members and their families for their sacrifices and said Americans "hold in our hearts the good men and women who have given their lives in this struggle ... (and) pray for the loved ones they have left behind."
"The United States military is the most capable and courageous fighting force in the world," Bush said. "And whatever our differences in Washington, our troops and their families deserve the appreciation and the support of our entire nation."
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