President Bush acknowledged “times are tough” for the United States and the Middle East and repeatedly apologized for U.S. soldiers’ conduct in Iraq in an interview published by an Egyptian newspaper on Friday.
Bush also backed away from the “road map” peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians, saying that keeping the promise of a Palestinian state by 2005 “may be hard.” He did not give a new timetable.
The editors of Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper who conducted the interview didn’t ask about the future of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Critics have called upon Rumsfeld to resign for his handling of the prisoner-abuse scandal.
But Bush reiterated his support for Rumsfeld in the interview, speaking of “our Secretary of Defense, in whom I’ve got confidence and believe in.”
The interview was conducted on Thursday, the same day Bush for the first time apologized for the conduct of U.S. troops in Iraq who humiliated prisoners in their charge. The issue has created furor throughout the Middle East, leading Bush to grant interviews to Arab news media in an attempt to repair the damage.
Says he's ‘sorry’ six times
Bush didn’t apologize in two television interviews Wednesday, but he made up for it in the Al-Ahram interview, saying the word “sorry” six times.
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am to them and their families for the humiliation,” he said. “I’m also sorry because people are then able to say, ‘Look how terrible America is.”’
Bush conceded that the issue has cost the United States standing in the Middle East.
“I think that things in the Middle East for the United States are difficult right now,” Bush said. “I think they’re difficult because people don’t really understand our intentions. ... I’d say right now times are tough for the United States and the Middle East.”
The interview was conducted in the Map Room of the White House. Al-Ahram spoke with Bush on Thursday afternoon, but because of the time difference was running the interview in Saturday editions, which was to hit the streets Friday evening in Cairo. The Associated Press in Cairo obtained a copy of the transcript earlier.
Bush said he planned to send a letter to Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia to call for better Palestinian leadership, and for setting up institutions that can then work to set up a Palestinian state.
No guarantees on ‘road map’
But he indicated the letter would contain no guarantees — as Arabs had hoped — and that there would be no state by 2005, as called for in the U.S.-backed “road-map” peace plan.
“Well, 2005 may be hard, since 2005 is right around the corner. I readily concede the date has slipped some, primarily because violence sprung up,” Bush said. “I don’t want to make any excuses, but nevertheless, I think the timetable of 2005 isn’t as realistic as it was two years ago.”
He added: “Nevertheless, I do think we ought to push hard as fast as possible to get a state in place.”
Bush declined to offer any guarantees on two issues of special concern to Arabs — that an eventual Palestinian state would encompass almost all the West Bank, and that Palestinian refugees who fled in 1948 from land that now lies in Israel be allowed to return.
Bush said those issues should be left for the government of the new Palestinian state to negotiate directly with Israel.
The letter to Qureia, Bush said, would say that the Untied States is still committed to the “road map” and the Palestinian state, “but also reminding him it’s now time to step up and show leadership, show leadership against the terrorists, and show leadership in putting the institutions in place for a state to emerge.”
Bush says America's intentions misunderstood
Bush said times are difficult for the United States in the Middle East because people in the region don’t understand America’s intentions, which he said were to build free and peaceful societies and to protect U.S. security.
He accepted some of the blame for not getting that message across, but blamed as well the prison-abuse scandal.
“Obviously, our reputation has been damaged severely by the terrible and horrible acts, inhumane acts that were conducted on Iraqi prisoners,” Bush said.
“So I’ve got to do a better job of explaining to the people that we’re for a lot of things that most people who live in the Middle East want,” he added. Bush said his desire to push a package of reforms for the “greater Middle East” remains strong despite criticism.
“I am as strong today on reforms in the greater Middle East as I have ever been. I fully understand criticism. I mean, I get criticized all the time in my job,” he said. “I think the job of a leader is to have a vision, a vision that is hopeful and optimistic.”
No comment on possible Syria sanctions
He did not say whether he would impose sanctions on Syria, saying: “If I make the decision to put on sanctions, it will be because he (Syrian President Bashar Assad) hasn’t been a full partner in the war against terror.”
Bush said he understands the frustration of a recent poll in Iraq showing that most people consider the United States an occupying power.
“I mean, if I were an Iraqi and I ... was asked, am I happy that somebody is running my government for me — which basically is what the question implies — the answer would be, no, we want to run our government ourselves,” he said.
Bush said that makes it even more critical to hand over sovereignty to Iraq on June 30, as agreed. He appealed for help in the transition from the United Nations, and also said a “good role” for the United Nations would be to help set up elections for January.
“I’ll tell you, however, the Iraqi people understand that America needs to be around for a while to help make sure that the killers — the foreign fighters who are there, disgruntled former Saddamists — don’t wreak havoc,” he said.