President Bush, pressed by Democrats for an exit strategy from Iraq, will not give a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal but stress in his State of the Union speech the need to train Iraqi forces to take over security, the White House said on Monday.
“The timetable is based on completing the mission, and part of completing the mission is training and equipping Iraqi security forces and making sure that they have the command structure so that they’re fully ready to defend their country,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in response to calls from some Democrats for a withdrawal plan.
Nevada Democratic Sen. Harry Reid, leader of the minority party in the U.S. Senate, called Iraq’s election on Sunday a milestone but said Bush in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday “needs to spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead.”
“Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there, so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done,” Reid said.
He also said Bush needed to increase international involvement.
A senior Bush administration official said the United States would like greater international participation in Iraq now the elections had been held.
“We would hope the members of the international community would seize on this opportunity to find ways to show tangible and public support for the political process in Iraq,” the official said.
A day after millions of Iraqis defied insurgents and turned out to vote in the country’s first election in decades, Bush spoke to his key war ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and two of the fiercest opponents of the war, French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Bush will see Blair, Chirac and Schroeder on a trip to Europe in three weeks and needs their support to bolster the emerging Iraqi democracy movement. The White House said all the leaders agreed with Bush that “the election is a victory for the Iraqi people and agreed that democracy in the region had taken a significant step forward.”
Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the United States hoped images of million of Iraqis turning out to vote would provide an example to the Middle East of the power of democracy.
“It could be a very dramatic milestone not only in the history of Iraq but in the history of the Middle East,” said Hadley, who just replaced Condoleezza Rice as national security adviser.
In a conference call with reporters, he did not mention particular countries, but a senior Bush administration official singled out Iran and Syria as two countries Washington hoped got the message from Sunday’s elections in Iraq.
In a sign Bush hopes the Iraq election will prove to be a catalyst for democracy elsewhere in the Middle East, the White House said the peace process was a central subject of talks Bush had on Sunday with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Abdullah.