Bush evades Blackwater issue

President Bush on Thursday refused to criticize a U.S. security company in Iraq accused in a shooting that left 11 civilians dead, saying investigators need to determine if the guards violated rules governing their operations.

Bush said he expected Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would raise the shooting by agents of Blackwater USA when they meet next week at the U.N. General Assembly.

Al-Maliki has urged the U.S. Embassy to find another security firm to protect its diplomats, saying he cannot tolerate “the killing of our citizens in cold blood.” He called the shootings a “crime” and said they had generated “widespread anger and hatred.”

“Obviously, to the extent innocent life was lost, you know, I’m saddened,” the president said at a wide-ranging news conference. “Our objective is to protect innocent life. And we’ve got a lot of brave souls in the theater working hard to protect innocent life.”

Officials of Blackwater, the Moyock, N.C.-based company, say its employees acted appropriately in response to an armed attack Sunday against a State Department convoy. Blackwater is the main provider of bodyguards and armed escorts for U.S. government civilian employees in Iraq.

In a telephone conversation on Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked al-Maliki to delay any initial action to the shooting and that any permanent measures be held up until all the facts were known, a senior State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide details of the private discussion.

Maliki, however, insisted on taking a stronger line and warned that continued use of the contractors would further inflame tensions, the official said. Blackwater’s operations in Iraq were suspended, prompting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad to ban all road convoys by diplomats and other civilian personnel outside the heavily fortified Green Zone.

A U.S.-Iraqi commission is looking into the shooting.

The shooting is the latest source of tension between Baghdad and Washington as Bush presses ahead with the Iraq war despite strong opposition across the United States and in the Democratic-led Congress. A week ago, Bush announced gradual cutbacks in U.S. forces from the current peak of 168,000 soldiers. Even so, the plan would leave 130,000 U.S. troops or more in Iraq next summer.

Bush acknowledged Baghdad would not meet the goal he set last January for Iraq to take over security in all of its 18 provinces by November.

“Achieving those goals have been slower than we thought,” Bush said. But he said the goals were still worth pursuing.

“Part of the reason why there’s not this instant democracy in Iraq is because people are still recovering from Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule,” Bush said. “Sort of an interesting comment, I heard somebody say, `Where’s Mandela?’ Well, Mandela’s dead because Saddam Hussein killed all the Mandelas.”

It was a reference to the charismatic former leader of South Africa who helped reconcile his country after decades of racial division. Mandela is still alive.

On another foreign policy issue, Bush said he took seriously threats by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “This is a person that consistently talks about the use of force on Israel, for example, and Israel is our very firm and strong ally,” Bush said.

He was asked about a recent statement by France’s foreign minister that the international community should prepare for the possibility of war in the event Iran obtains atomic weapons — although the official later stressed the focus remains on diplomatic pressures.

“I have consistently stated that I am hopeful that we can convince the Iranian regime to give up any ambitions it has in developing a weapons program, and do so peacefully,” Bush said. “That ought to be the objective of any diplomacy.”

He also defended the decision of New York officials to deny Ahmadinejad permission to lay a wreath next week at ground zero — site of the detroyed World Trade Center. “I can understand why they would not want somebody that’s running a country that’s a state sponsor of terror down there at the site,” the president said.

Bush spoke out for the first time about the case in Jena, La., in which six black teenagers were initially charged with attempted murder in the beating of a white classmate. He wouldn’t comment on legal specifics. The case has attracted nationwide attention.

“The events in Louisiana have saddened me,” the president said. “I understand the emotions.”

He said the FBI is monitoring the situation, adding: “All of us in America want there to be, you know, fairness when it comes to justice.”

Bush repeatedly refused to comment on reports that Israeli planes guided by ground forces attacked an installation — believed to be the beginnings of a nuclear project — in northern Syria on Sept. 6.

Asked about whether North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria, Bush said: “We expect them not to.”


Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report