President Bush was celebrating “a good week for the cause of freedom,” with the killing of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the completion of Baghdad’s government, as he huddled with advisers.
“We will determine how to best deploy America’s resources in Iraq and achieve our shared goal of an Iraq that can govern itself, sustain itself and defend itself,” Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address. “There’s still difficult work ahead in Iraq. Yet this week, the ideology of terror has suffered a severe blow.”
The president was spending the weekend at Camp David, Md., preparing for extended meetings there next week on Iraq after he conferred Friday at the presidential retreat with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a staunch ally.
On Monday, Bush is gathering his top national security advisers, including military commanders reporting from the field in Iraq, and members of his Cabinet. They will hold two long sessions, broken up by a lunch featuring outside experts with a range of views and capped off by dinner.
On Tuesday, the president and his team are holding a joint Cabinet meeting of sorts, talking via video conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a dozen or so of his government ministers.
'This is not a meeting about drawdowns'
The White House discouraged speculation the Camp David meetings would produce a troop-cutback formula. “This is not a meeting about drawdowns,” White House counselor Dan Bartlett said. “It’s a meeting about how can we best help the Iraqis help secure their country.”
The meetings were scheduled before the events of this week — al-Zarqawi’s death from a U.S. airstrike on Wednesday and the Iraqi parliament’s approval Thursday of three key security ministers in al-Maliki’s government.
But with the war dragging down his approval rating and clouding Republican election hopes for November, the developments were welcome at the White House.
Al-Zarqawi’s death was not expected to end the unrelenting violence in Iraq, or bring a speedy withdrawal of American troops. In fact, Bush predicted attacks may increase.
“The terrorists and insurgents will seek to prove that they can carry on without Zarqawi,” he said.
Still, the president portrayed the loss of the insurgency’s most visible leader as progress. “The killing of Zarqawi is an important victory in the global war on terror,” he said.
Likewise, the political appointments in Iraq, which came after a long impasse, drew cheers in Washington. The Bush administration hopes a stable, effective government will help sap the Sunni Arab-driven insurgency of popular support.
“These new leaders will help the government address its top priorities: reconciliation, reconstruction and putting an end to the kidnappings, beheadings and suicide bombings,” Bush said. “As they pursue these goals, they will have America’s full support.”
Reid: Bush asking too much
Democrats also celebrated the week’s events, but said Bush should use the opportunity to present the country a concrete plan for making it “a year of significant transition.”
“Our troops and the American people have been exceedingly patient as previous mileposts in Iraq have passed without progress. The president is asking too much if he expects us to do it again,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in the Democratic radio address. “With Zarqawi gone and the cabinet filled, we need more than platitudes next week when the president convenes a conference with Iraq’s leaders and his war Cabinet.”
The decision to hold meetings at the wooded compound in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains gives them a high profile they might not have if they were held at the White House. Bush said Friday that he decided to convene his team at the rustic, remote property where, cell-phone service is spotty, “because it can be distracting down in Washington with phone calls and all this kind of stuff.”
“The prime minister has put forward a strategy as to how to achieve his objectives, which coincide with our objectives: a nation that can sustain itself, govern itself and defend itself,” Bush said at a joint news conference with Fogh Rasmussen. “And we want to review all aspects of that strategy.”