By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 28, 2007 - Defeating extremists in the Middle East is essential to America's security, and the most important way to counter these extremists is to win the fight in Iraq, President Bush said today. "The challenge in Iraq comes down to this: Either the forces of extremism succeed, or the forces of freedom succeed. Either our enemies advance their interests in Iraq, or we advance our interests," Bush said at the 89th Annual American Legion National Convention in Reno, Nev.
The violent ideology that inspires extremists in the Middle East has two main strains, Bush said: Sunni extremism and Shiia extremism. These two strains are vying for control of Iraq, and both want to drive America out of the region, which would represent a direct threat to the United States and its allies, he said.
America has enduring interests in the Middle East, such as creating a region of secure democratic states participating in the war on terror, drying up the stream of recruits for al Qaeda, encouraging the government of Iran to be accountable to its people, and advancing a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, Bush said.
"We seek justice and dignity and human rights for all the people of the Middle East," Bush said. "Achieving this future requires hard work and strategic patience over many years. Yet our security depends on it."
Iraq is the central front in the war on terror, and it is where Sunni and Shiia extremists are staging sensational attacks in an attempt to bring down the young democracy, Bush said. Sunni extremists are led by al Qaeda and frequently target innocent Iraqis with violent attacks, many carried out by foreign fighters. Shiia extremists are backed by Iran and are training Iraqis to carry out attacks on coalition forces, the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people, Bush said.
"We've seen what these enemies will do when American forces are actively engaged in Iraq," Bush said. "And we can envision what they would do if they were emboldened by American forces in retreat."
Momentum in Iraq is in the coalition's favor, Bush said. The new U.S. strategy in Iraq is showing results in better security, with sectarian violence sharply decreasing in Baghdad and al Qaeda being displaced from former strongholds in Baghdad and in Anbar and Diyala provinces. Also, since January, coalition forces have killed or captured an average of more than 1,500 al Qaeda terrorists each month and have targeted Iranian-backed militants and their supply networks, he said.
The U.S. strategy also is producing encouraging results at the local level in Iraq, Bush said. In Anbar province, which was once thought to be lost to insurgents, local Sunnis have turned against al Qaeda and joined with U.S. forces to drive terrorists out of their cities, he noted. Virtually every city and town in the province now has a mayor and municipal council, he said, and local officials are forming ties with the central government in Baghdad.
Other provinces also are showing signs of progress, Bush said. In Diyala province, the city of Baqubah re-opened six banks, and in Ninewah province, local officials have established a commission to investigate corruption.
"Iraqis are increasingly reaching accommodations with each other, with the coalition, and with the government in Baghdad," Bush said. "This reconciliation is coming from the bottom up. It's having an impact in the fight against the enemy, and it's building a solid foundation for a democratic Iraq."
Bush acknowledged that Iraq has much more progress to make on the national level, but said he was encouraged by the agreement reached Aug. 26 by the top leaders in Iraq's government. The leaders agreed on several draft pieces of legislation, such as a law on de-Baathification reform and legislation on provincial powers, which are among the benchmarks identified by Congress.
"These measures still have to be passed by the Iraqi parliament, but the agreement shows that Iraq's leaders can put aside their differences, they can sit down together, and they can work out tough issues central to the fate of their country," Bush said.
At the international level, the new strategy in Iraq also is showing results, Bush said. International developments include:
-- The United Nations and Iraq, with support from the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other nations, have finalized an International Compact for Iraq that will bring new economic assistance and debt relief in exchange for aggressive economic reform.
-- The Iraqis have convened a neighbors conference, which is bringing together countries in the region to help Iraq through security, economic and diplomatic cooperation.
-- The United Nations Security Council has decided to expand its mission in Iraq and is seeking to help with local elections and reconciliation. The UN will soon name a new high-ranking envoy to Iraq to coordinate the expanded effort.
-- Saudi Arabia is looking to open a new embassy in Baghdad.
"The international community increasingly understands the importance of a free Iraq. They understand a free Iraq is important for world peace. And that is why we'll continue to rally the world for this noble and necessary cause," Bush said.
Bush noted that some critics say the lack of political progress on the national level in Iraq proves the surge has failed. However, improving security is the vital precursor to making gains in other areas, like the government and economy, and local political progress will come before national progress, he said.
Bush also emphasized that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other leaders are dealing with complex and emotional issues that can be likened to the struggle for civil rights in the U.S. They are trying to resolve these issues in a challenging security environment, after decades of tyranny and oppression, he said.
"Iraq's leaders aren't perfect, but they were elected by their people," Bush said. "They want what we want: a free Iraq that fights terrorists instead of harboring them. Leaders in Washington need to look for ways to help our Iraqi allies succeed, not excuses for abandoning them."
The challenge the United States faces in Iraq is hard, Bush said, but Americans should appreciate how difficult establishing democracy can be. The men and women of America's military understand why they're in this fight and one day will join the ranks of veterans and look back on their service with pride, he said.
"One day, years from now, another president will be in a room like this," Bush told the room of military veterans. "That president will look out upon a sea of caps worn by those who show a quiet pride in their service.
"Some of that audience will include people who've won the fight against fascism and Nazism and communism. You'll be joined by younger veterans who have fought in places like Kandahar and Ramadi," he added. "And just like you, the new generation of veterans will be able to say proudly they held fast against determined and ruthless enemies, helped salvage an entire region from tyranny and terror, and made a safer world for the American people."