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Bush: Unclear when U.S. troops can leave Iraq

President Bush said Friday that it’s not yet clear when Iraqi forces will be able to take control of their country’s security, a key step in bringing U.S. troops home.
U.S. President Bush speaks at joint news conference with Danish PM Rasmussen at Camp David
President Bush speaks at a joint news conference with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen at Camp David in Maryland on Friday.Jason Reed / Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Bush said Friday that it’s not yet clear when Iraqi forces will be able to take control of their country’s security, a key step in bringing U.S. troops home.

Making that determination depends on an assessment of the new government in Baghdad, which just on Thursday installed a new defense minister and other top national security posts, Bush said.

“I think we’ll get a realistic appraisal about the capacity for standing up Iraqi troops as this new government begins to function,” the president said, appearing here with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a staunch U.S. ally in Iraq.

The meeting came a day after the disclosure that terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had been killed by a U.S. airstrike in Iraq. Bush said again that al-Zarqawi’s death would not stop the violence there or bring a speedy withdrawal of troops, but he celebrated it nonetheless.

“Removing Zarqawi is a major blow to al-Qaida,” Bush said. “It’s not going to end the war. And it’s certainly not going to end the violence. But it’s going to help a lot.”

Optimistic on 18-month goal
Fogh Rasmussen recently visited Baghdad to meet with the new Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, who told him that he is optimistic that Iraqi forces can be in charge throughout the country in 18 months. Bush said that assessing this claim is a main reason that he is holding two days of talks on the way forward in Iraq next week at Camp David, with his national security advisers and military commanders.

White House officials have said the meetings Monday and Tuesday will not set precise timetables for U.S. troop withdrawals. With confidence in the president’s handling of Iraq is at its lowest point ever, according to an AP-Ipsos poll, the president is under pressure to give Americans a sense of how much longer U.S. troops will be there.

Bush said he and his team would “analyze the new government ... look carefully at what their blueprint for the future looks like.”

“We’ll be able to give the American people a better feel for what stand-up-stand-down means,” Bush said.

Bush, Danish PM discuss military scandals
Fogh Rasmussen took Bush to task for recent scandals involving the U.S. military in Iraq — the alleged Marine massacre of Iraqi civilians in Haditha and the abuses of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

“When unacceptable events happen in Abu Ghraib and when allegations are made about horrible events in Haditha, it is not only a tragedy for the victims, it is damaging to our own efforts and an offense to our very own values,” he said, with Bush at his side after their talks at the presidential retreat in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains. “The president has assured me that all allegations will be investigated and if there has been wrongdoing then the responsible will be prosecuted.”

Bush did not mention either controversy, instead saying that his ally had talked to him about his concerns over the United States’ detention of terrorism suspects at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Bush said that “we’d like it to be empty,” but said he is waiting for the ability to try certain suspects in U.S. courts “once the Supreme Court makes its decision as to the proper venue for these trials.”

“We’re waiting for the Supreme Court to act,” Bush said.

‘Limited period of time’ for Iran
Touching on another national security issue, Bush said Iran will have to decide soon whether to accept a package of incentives to abandon its nuclear weapons program or face the prospect of penalties.

“We’ve given the Iranians a limited period of time — you know, weeks not months — to digest a proposal to move forward,” the president said.

Bush also defended the practice of “rendition,” which involves sending suspects, without judicial review, to states where where some allegedly are subject to torture.

“It’s been a part of our government for quite a period of time; not just my government, but previous administrations have done so in order to protect people,” Bush said. “And, as we do so, we protect the sovereign rights of nations that we’re involved with.”

Bush and his wife, Laura, welcomed the prime minister and members of his family to Camp David — a gesture the president said reflected his “high regard for Prime Minister Rasmussen and our — the friendship between our two countries.” Bush noted that it has been two years since another foreign leader has been granted the honor of a Camp David stay.

Out-humble the other
Both leaders are fitness buffs, and each seemed ready to bolt from the meetings and joint appearance before reporters to start their planned bike ride around the wooded property. Bush and Fogh Fasmussen each try to out-humble the other before their excursion.

“It’s important to have good weather today because the prime minister’s going to give me a mountain biking lesson after this news conference,” Bush quipped. “All in all we had a very constructive visit, which will be continued over lunch after the bike ride — presuming he doesn’t ride me into the ground.”

Replied his guest: “I’m looking forward to exploring Camp David in even greater detail on bike. It’s going to be hard work, I know that. But I will do my very best to keep up with you, Mr. President.”

Danish troop contribution substantial for size
Bush has been meeting with the Danish leader virtually every year since 2001, a reflection of his appreciation for Denmark’s support for U.S. policies on a variety of fronts. Fogh Rasmussen also plans stops in San Francisco and Seattle before heading home.

Denmark has about 500 troops in Iraq supporting the U.S. commitment there and 360 more in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led force. Danish officials note that their nation’s contribution of troops is substantial for a country with just 5.4 million people.

Public support for the commitment is 40 percent in Denmark, according to polls, compared with 72 percent two years ago. Still, the Danish Parliament recently approved the government’s plan to extend Danish participation in Iraq until June 2007.

“We are committed to remain in Iraq as long as the Iraqi government and the U.N. request our assistance and as long as we can make a positive difference,” Fogh Rasmussen said.

Villy Soevndal, leader of Denmark’s opposition Socialist party, delivered a letter on Thursday to the U.S. Embassy in Copenhagen criticizing the Iraq war. He said it was “based on a lie” that Saddam Hussein’s regime had weapons of mass destruction.