Under pressure to start bringing U.S. troops home from Iraq after Sunday’s election, President Bush said on Saturday that the U.S. mission must keep going to help the new government get its footing.
“As democracy takes hold in Iraq, America’s mission there will continue,” Bush said in his weekly radio address. “Our military forces, diplomats and civilian personnel will help the newly elected government of Iraq establish security and train Iraqi military police and other forces.”
Hours after he spoke, a rocket hit the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad’s heavily secured Green Zone, killing two Americans and wounding four.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Bush was told about the attack right after it happened and she reiterated his message that the U.S. mission in Iraq would continue.
While calling Sunday’s election a “turning point” in Iraq’s history and a milestone in the war on terror, Bush warned it would not bring a halt to violence there.
“Terrorist violence will not end with the election,” he said.
The president is under growing pressure at home to show signs of progress in Iraq, with the U.S. death toll having surpassed 1,400 and members of Congress increasingly uneasy about the costs in blood and money.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, a critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, said on Thursday that the United States should start to withdraw militarily and politically from Iraq and aim to pull out all troops as early as possible next year.
At least 12,000 U.S. troops should leave at once to send a signal about U.S. intentions to “ease the pervasive sense of occupation,” Kennedy said.
Bush has resisted setting a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal, but in a news conference on Wednesday, he seemed to suggest that by the end of the year the mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to protect themselves could be complete.
Bush and his government have been lowering their expectations for the turnout in Sunday’s vote due to the violence, saying that the fact they are voting is a success in itself.
U.S. officials planned to closely watch the voting process on Sunday, with the first reaction expected to come from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in a round of television appearances.
“In the face of assassination, brutal violence and calculated intimidation, Iraqis continue to prepare for the elections and to campaign for their candidates,” Bush said.
Bush quoted the al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for a recent statement in which the Jordanian militant said “we have declared a fierce war against this evil principle.”
“Yet in the fact of this intimidation, the Iraqi people are standing firm. Tomorrow’s elections will happen because of their courage and determination,” he said.
Bush’s original mission in Iraq was to rid the country of weapons of mass destruction, but after no weapons turned up, he emphasized the priority of advancing democracy to Iraq.
He noted that over the past year successful elections have been held in Afghanistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, Georgia, Ukraine and the Palestinian territories.
“Tomorrow’s election will add to the momentum of democracy,” he said.