Bush admits U.S. will pay bulk of Iraq costs

President Bush said Monday that seeing Iraq through reconstruction to a stable and secure democracy is a worthy cause that the United States will press regardless of whether its coalition partners remain there.

“The fundamental question is: Is it worth it? And the answer is, ‘Absolutely, it’s worth it for a free Iraq to emerge’,” said Bush, standing alongside visiting Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who is pulling his country’s 1,650 troops out of the country to fulfill a campaign promise.

“I fully understand that,” Bush said. “But he also said he’s going to cooperate with the coalition in terms of further withdrawals. And I appreciate that.”

Two years after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, the coalition has been crumbling. Dozens of countries have pulled out or begun bringing home troops.

Italy’s prime minister announced plans last month to start draw down his country’s 3,000-strong contingent in Iraq in September. Poland is withdrawing about a third of its 2,400 troops. Last year, Spain’s new Socialist government withdrew its 1,300 troops.

Ukraine sent some 1,650 troops to Iraq in a move widely seen as an attempt to smooth relations. However, the deployment was widely unpopular at home and Ukraine has begun withdrawing troops. Yushchenko said the pullout likely will be completed in the fall, fulfilling his campaign promise.

Yushchenko was elected in December after surviving dioxin poisoning that left his face disfigured. He blames the poisoning on the regime of his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma, who had supported Yushchenko’s opponent in the election.

On another subject, Bush said he welcomed Syria’s vow to fully remove its forces from the country.

“That not only means troops, but it means security forces, far as I’m concerned. When they say, ‘We’re going to leave the country,’ we expect troops and security forces to leave’,” he said.

“Secondly, it’s important for this election to take place on time,” Bush added.

Syria has said that it plans to pull all its troops and intelligence agents from Lebanon by April 30.

A United Nations team could be dispatched to verify the withdrawal, a U.N. envoy said Sunday after meeting President Bashar Assad.

“We look forward to continuing to work with our friends and allies to make sure Lebanon is truly free,” Bush said.

The president said the U.S.-led coalition’s strategy in Iraq remains to train Iraqi soldiers and security forces so they can defend their own country.

Bush said he appreciated the job that Ukrainian forces have done, including helping to protect Iraqis vote in January.

Bush promised to support Ukraine’s bid to join the World Trade Organization by the end of this year and to seek to persuade Congress to lift remaining trade restrictions on Ukraine that are a vestige of the Cold War.

Bush was less committal on Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, although he said, “There is a way forward … to become a partner of the United States and other nations in NATO.”

“It is a path and we want to help Ukraine get on that path as quickly as possible,” Bush said.

Bush called Yushchenko a courageous leader, “a friend to our country and an inspiration to all who love liberty.”

“The world is changing. Freedom is spreading,” Bush said, citing Ukraine, Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of fledgling democracies.

For his part, Yuschenko said, “Our ideals are simple and eternal. We want democracy and freedom.”

He said that ending corruption and easing poverty remain top priorities. He asserted that he was committed to nourishing the rule of law and human rights in his country.

Yushchenko has promised a thorough investigation of corruption and misdeeds that allegedly flourished during his predecessor’s 10 years as president.

Yushchenko, who will address the Congress later in the week, is here to lobby for aid and investment, win Washington’s support for joining NATO, and greet Ukrainian-Americans on an itinerary that takes him to New York, Chicago and Boston, accompanied by his wife Kateryna, an American-born Ukrainian.

Bush frequently cites Yushchenko’s peaceful rise to power as an example of the march of freedom throughout the world and has pledged to help him make further democratic reforms.

Yushchenko told The Associated Press before leaving for Washington that he and Bush would review steps to end illicit arms sales from his country.

Relations deteriorated after Washington accused Kuchma’s regime of selling radar systems to Iraq in violation of international sanctions.

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© 2005 The Associated Press