Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Bush says troops will stay till task accomplished

Bush says troops will stay till task accomplished
By Alastair Macdonald

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - President Bush said on Tuesday the hand of al Qaeda lay behind sectarian violence racking Iraq, and he would not pull troops out "before the mission is complete".

Bush, speaking in the Baltic republics before a NATO summit, deflected talk of "civil war" -- a description which could increase pressure on him to withdraw U.S. forces.

"There is one thing I'm not going to do. I am not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete," he said in a speech at the University of Latvia.

In Baghdad, U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell said there had been a "dramatic spike" in killings and said violence would rise but still did not meet the military's definition of civil war.

Car bombs close to west Baghdad's main Yarmouk hospital killed four people and wounded 40 on Tuesday. Five young Iraqi girls were killed in Ramadi and in Kirkuk a suicide bomber attacked the governor's convoy.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told the visiting Iraqi president the U.S. occupation and U.S.-backed "agents" in the region were to blame for Iraq's violence.

Ferocious sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in February has eclipsed the Sunni insurgency as the main source of turmoil.

The New York Times and other U.S. news outlets have now adopted the term "civil war" to describe the violence.

The White House acknowledged on Monday Iraq was in a "new phase" but denied it amounted to civil war.

Asked at a news conference in Estonia what the difference was between the bloodshed and civil war, Bush said recent bombings were part of a pattern of al Qaeda attacks aimed at provoking conflict between religious groups.

"The plan of Mr. Zarqawi was to foment sectarian violence," he said, referring to the former leader of al Qaeda in Iraq killed by a U.S. air strike in June, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

"What you're seeing on TV started last February," he said. "It was an attempt by people to foment sectarian violence."

Caldwell said Iraq was not in a civil war because the government was functioning, it had the loyalty of its security forces and no group was trying to overthrow and replace it.

But he predicted "elevated levels of violence in the next couple of weeks ... al Qaeda, foreign terrorists and extremists do not want to let Iraqis decide their own future".


Iraqi President Jalal Talabani was visiting Iran in the hope it can help stem the bloodletting. Anti-American President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Monday Iran would do what it could.

Iranian television quoted Khamenei as telling Talabani on Tuesday: "The first step to resolve the insecurity in Iraq is the withdrawal of the occupiers and handing over the security issues to the Iraqi government, which is backed by the people.

"Some U.S. agents in the region are the middle men for implementing American policies and creating an insecure Iraq."

Bush said the Iraqi government was free to talk to Iran, but U.S. conditions for direct talks with Tehran remained unchanged -- it must suspend nuclear fuel enrichment.

Washington is keen to stop Iran's nuclear program, which it suspects aims to produce atomic weapons. Iran denies it.

The United States is facing calls to engage Tehran to help end the bloodshed, and Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are due to meet in Jordan this week. U.S. officials say contacts with Iran and Syria will be on their agenda.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan proposed on Tuesday an international conference among Iraqi political parties and said again that Syria and Iran, needed to be engaged.

"We should bring them (Syria and Iran) in and get them to work with us in resolving the issue, and let them assume some of the responsibility," Annan told reporters in New York.

Six Iraqi's, including five girls ranging in age from infant to teenager, were killed on Tuesday during a firefight between a U.S. patrol and suspected insurgents in Ramadi, western Iraq, the U.S. military said.

"In a very tragic way, today reminds us that insurgents' actions throughout Iraq are felt by all," said military spokesman Marine Lt. Col. Bryan Salas.

A man blew himself up next to the convoy of Kirkuk governor Abdul-Rahman Mustafa, killing a passerby and wounding 12 people.

"It was the third assassination attempt on my life, but it will not stop me doing my job," Mustafa told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Caren Bohan and Paul Taylor in Tallinn)