President George W. Bush has said U.S. forces will not pull out of Iraq and Afghanistan until they have found Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. As Mr. Bush prepared for his trip next week to London, where he will be met by tens of thousands of protesters, the U.S. president issued a defiant message on Iraq.
Speaking in an interview with the Financial Times, Mr. Bush said it is “inconceivable” that the U.S. would quit Iraq and Afghanistan. “We are not pulling out until the job is done. Period,” he said.
Asked whether that included finding the former Iraqi leader and the head of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, Mr. Bush said: “Yes, that’s part of it. But even bigger is a free and democratic society. That is the mission.”
On the eve of war Mr. Bush had said “regime change” was the aim of U.S. policy and went out of his way to avoid making the capture or killing of Saddam Hussein an objective.
But Mr. Bush has been losing domestic support as the death toll has mounted in Iraq. As a result, his advisers have begun to focus on the capture or death of Mr. Hussein as a way of removing the specter of the former dictator’s return to power and secure a visible victory in Iraq.
Mr. Bush’s determination to stay the course comes as the White House seeks to speed up the return to Iraqi self government and reduce U.S. troop levels in Iraq.
The Iraqi people are “plenty capable” of running their own country, Mr. Bush said, adding: “The sooner that sovereignty is handed over in a way commensurate with a stable country, the better off it is.”
Mr. Bush was speaking in the Oval Office on Wednesday, following a meeting that morning to discuss ways of accelerate the transfer of power to Iraqis.
Paul Bremer, the chief US administrator in Iraq, has since returned to Baghdad to push a proposal through the Iraqi interim governing council to restore sovereignty through a provisional government and hold some form of elections on an accelerated time- table.
The plan is intended to give the U.S. officials in the coalition provisional authority a less conspicuous role in the running of Iraq.
“The enemy is changing tactics and we’ll change with them,” Mr. Bush told the FT and two other news organizations.
Commenting on the mass demonstrations set to greet him in London and his unpopularity in international opinion polls, the president said: “I, frankly, haven’t paid that much attention to what you just described.”
Mr. Bush said he had not yet decided whether to lift the trade tariffs restricting steel imports into the U.S. But he left open the possibility of a change in policy by suggesting that his judgment would be influenced by whether the steel industry had used the “respite” from tariff protection to restructure.
The president played down recent U.S. concerns about the creation of a European security and defense policy, saying that he trusted Tony Blair, the British prime minister, to ensure that France and Germany would not undermine NATO.
“When he says to me that NATO is a vital relationship and the European defense force will not undermine NATO’s capacities and/or ability to move . . . I believe him.”
Even by Mr. Bush’s standards of praise for like-minded leaders, he was gushing about Mr. Blair, who has been his most steadfast supporter in the war in Iraq.
“Peace and freedom” were Mr. Blair’s rewards for his support of the president’s policies, Mr. Bush said.