Cheney in Baghdad; Bombers kill 12

   VP Cheney arrives in Baghdad (AP)

U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney met Iraqi leaders on Wednesday during an unannounced visit to Baghdad, and was expected to press for more progress in meeting political benchmarks aimed at ending sectarian violence.

In Iraq's relatively peaceful Kurdistan, a truck bomb killed 12 people and wounded 53 in the northern city of Arbil, police said. It was one of the few bombings to hit a region that has been spared the bloodshed engulfing the rest of Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Cheney's visit, part of a Middle East tour, could signal growing U.S. impatience at Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's failure to push power-sharing agreements as American military commanders build up troops to secure Baghdad.

John Roberts, the U.S. embassy information officer in Baghdad, said Cheney would also hold talks with General David Petraeus, commander of the 150,000 American troops in Iraq. Roberts gave no further details.

U.S. President George W. Bush, who is sending 30,000 extra troops to Iraq for a security crackdown seen as a last ditch effort to stave off civil war between majority Shi'ites and once-dominant Sunni Arabs, is under mounting pressure from Democrats to show concrete progress in the four-year-old war.

With U.S. troops dying daily in Iraq, American officials have urged the Iraqi parliament to scrap a planned two-month summer recess.

During a visit to Baghdad last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said progress on a package of laws that include a bill dividing up Iraq's oil wealth would be an important factor in Washington's decision to maintain higher troop levels.

Petraeus, who last month said Maliki's cabinet was comprised of leaders with "narrow agendas," is expected to deliver an assessment of the "troop surge" in September.

Cheney, one of the main architects of a war in which more than 3,300 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis have died, arrives in Baghdad at a sensitive time.

Leaders from the Sunni Arab minority have threatened to quit Maliki's government because they say Sunni interests are being ignored. Washington says a Sunni role in government is needed to bring Sunnis firmly into the political process and tame the Sunni Arab insurgency.

Ethnic Kurds, staunch U.S. allies, have also threatened to block the oil bill in parliament.

The law is another U.S. benchmark, along with legislation to roll back a ban on former members of Saddam Hussein's party from public office, a plan that has met deep Shi'ite opposition.

Despite the security crackdown, Sunni Islamist al Qaeda has stepped up a campaign of car bombs against Shi'ite targets that officials say are part of a campaign to ignite reprisal killings.

RARE KURDISTAN ATTACK

Bomb attacks are extremely rare in Iraq's autonomous oil-rich Kurdish region, unlike the rest of the country.

Abdul Khaleq Talat, chief of Arbil police, said the blast in the centre of the city was caused by a truck packed with 800 kg (1,764 lb) of explosives covered with kitchen cleaning products.

Talat put the death toll at 12, with 53 wounded.

Arbil is the capital of Kurdistan. The bomb went off near the Kurdish government's Interior Ministry.

Television images showed Kurdish soldiers and police pulling wounded people from the rubble of a collapsed building. The explosion left a massive crater in the road, damaged vehicles and caused partial damage to buildings.

"I was near the site of the explosion. I saw fire coming out from the blast area. A man was burned to death," a witness said.

A suicide bomber killed more than 60 people at the Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Arbil in May 2005 in an attack that was claimed by a militant Sunni Arab group. That was the last bomb attack in the Kurdish region that residents can recall.

Bush needed Tony Blair

An era is ending. President Bush is losing his last best friend in the international arena, the man who explained Bush's own motives and actions better than he has been able to do.

Tony Blair's last Rose Garden news conference with Bush, ending with Blair's eloquent, impassioned defense of Iraq policy as a necessary front in the war against terrorism and a plea for helping Africa develop and for action on global warming, was a stark reminder that now it will be just Bush out there, speaking for himself.

Bush needed Blair and made clear he feels a bit bereft as Blair forcibly exits June 27 as the British prime minister, a political victim of his support for Bush and the war in Iraq. "I know the world needs courage," Bush said, looking wan as he said he honors Blair's courageousness.

Blair in turn praised Bush, admiring his leadership, calling him a friend, "unyielding, unflinching and determined." (He did not actually say "stubborn.")

It was a moment for nostalgia but also for new worry about this waning presidency. A lot can and will happen between now and January 2009.

Bush cannot muster the rhetoric or passion he needs to explain to his fellow citizens or the world why he continues to send young men and women to Iraq to die in a civil war that is killing thousands of Iraqis. Every time he attempts to justify the war, he comes across as irritatingly petulant.

A few days earlier he talked about how he is going to order a burst of effort to spur vehicle fuel efficiency, but he was uninspiring and almost listless. Nothing will happen until the end of his presidency, he said, forgetting that his own vice president ridiculed energy conservation from the beginning of his first term when pushing energy independence could have meant something.

After months of searching and being rejected, Bush has appointed a "war czar," a general who could not tell his commander in chief "No, sir, I'm sorry, but I would be foolish to take such a thankless job, a job without authority."

Meanwhile, there's more news about Bush's assault on civil liberties. We now know that there was almost a Marx Brothers night in March 2004 as a White House chief of staff, an acting attorney general and a White House general counsel who is now attorney general raced around Washington at night to the bedside of an attorney general in intensive care in a vain effort to get his signature on a program he believed was unconstitutional — a warrantless domestic spying program.

Bush, who probably ordered the whole charade, won't talk about it other than to say members of Congress were briefed after Sept. 11, 2001.

It's astonishing that Alberto Gonzales, who was Bush's lawyer then, has clung so long to his job as head of the Justice Department as it melted down around his incompetence. Even the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, says the department is dysfunctional and predicts Gonzales will have to leave.

Bush's futile efforts to defend his friend — and Iraq war planner — Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank, when the bank's own board thinks he violated its ethics policies, have made the United States look like a bully, preaching against corruption only if it doesn't hurt U.S. interests. This raises the question about when loyalty becomes liability, and why Bush can't see the difference.

Nearly every day there are new crises like these for the president, many seemingly manufactured by the administration itself.

Bush said he read three books on George Washington last year and that he is comforted by the observation that if historians are still analyzing the first president, it will be a long time before his own 43rd presidency is properly scrutinized.

Bush and Blair were wary of each other at first. Blair was President Bill Clinton's friend and was worried about Bush's "frat-boy" reputation. But leaders must rise above such concerns, and Blair knew his legacy would be tied to the legacy Bush would create, for good and ill.

Bush and Gordon Brown, Blair's successor, will work together because they must. But it will not be the mutual dependency and trust that Blair and Bush forged, and Bush will miss Blair's forceful but supportive presence and passion. Blair somehow elevated Bush.

Increasingly, it's as if Bush is marking time, wondering when the job stopped being fun. The poor man needs all the friends he can get.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)

Bush still looking for a war czar

Now that the White House is searching for a "war czar," it begs the question of who has been coordinating U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan the past four years.

A team of West Wing players led by national security adviser Stephen Hadley has tried to keep turf-conscious agencies marching in the same direction on military, political and reconstruction fronts. A few Bush aides say privately, however, that the White House probably should have recruited someone to oversee the war effort a year ago.

Critics say the administration’s job of coordinating the war has never gone smooth enough or fast enough. And now two key members of the White House team focused on the war are leaving.

"The problem is not broad strategy and policy, it’s that the bureaucracy is so inefficient and there’s been so little follow-up that the machine doesn’t work," former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said.

The new job comes as Bush’s combat troop buildup is trying to bring a degree of calm in Iraq so political reconciliation and rebuilding can take root.

Hadley said he wants to make sure that if any request from the war zone bogs down among agencies, there is someone who can speak for the president to get it solved quickly.

Anthony Cordesman, an Iraq expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wonders why anyone would want a job in an administration nearing lame-duck status.

"We’ve had czars before," Cordesman said. "It doesn’t do any good to have a czar unless they have a clear focus and can override members of the Cabinet."

Bush’s poll ratings hit new lows; GOP candidates losing too

President George W. Bush continues to set new records for falling poll numbers. The latest poll numbers show Bush at an all-time low.

The poll contains even more bad news for Republicans. No current GOP candidate for President beats the Democratic contenders in head-to-head matchups.

Marcus Mabry reports in Newsweek:

It’s hard to say which is worse news for Republicans: that George W. Bush now has the worst approval rating of an American president in a generation, or that he seems to be dragging every ’08 Republican presidential candidate down with him. But According to the new NEWSWEEK Poll, the public’s approval of Bush has sunk to 28 percent, an all-time low for this president in our poll, and a point lower than Gallup recorded for his father at Bush Sr.’s nadir. The last president to be this unpopular was Jimmy Carter who also scored a 28 percent approval in 1979. This remarkably low rating seems to be casting a dark shadow over the GOP’s chances for victory in ’08. The NEWSWEEK Poll finds each of the leading Democratic contenders beating the Republican frontrunners in head-to-head matchups.

Perhaps that explains why Republican candidates, participating in their first major debate this week, mentioned Bush’s name only once, but Ronald Reagan’s 19 times. (The debate was held at Reagan’s presidential library.)

When the NEWSWEEK Poll asked more than 1,000 adults on Wednesday and Thursday night (before and during the GOP debate) which president showed the greatest political courage—meaning being brave enough to make the right decisions for the country, even if it jeopardized his popularity —more respondents volunteered Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton (18 percent each) than any other president. Fourteen percent of adults named John F. Kennedy and 10 percent said Abraham Lincoln. Only four percent mentioned George W. Bush. (Then again, only five percent volunteered Franklin Roosevelt and only three percent said George Washington.)

A majority of Americans believe Bush is not politically courageous: 55 percent vs. 40 percent. And nearly two out of three Americans (62 percent) believe his recent actions in Iraq show he is “stubborn and unwilling to admit his mistakes,” compared to 30 percent who say Bush’s actions demonstrate that he is “willing to take political risks to do what’s right.”

Former New York City major Rudolph Giuliani receives the highest marks for having shown political courage in the past among the current major candidates from either party (48 percent of registered voters say he has), followed by Hillary Clinton at 43 percent, John McCain at 42, John Edwards at 33 and Barack Obama at 30. Mitt Romney comes in last among the six leading candidates at 11 percent.

Clinton receives the highest marks for showing political courage in the current campaign, though, with 34 percent of voters saying she has, followed by 33 percent for Obama, 30 percent for Edwards, 28 for McCain, 25 for Giuliani and 11 for Romney.

Obama is seen as the most optimistic candidate (a consistent measure of electability) in either party: 51 percent of registered voters say the Illinois senator is optimistic, compared to 47 percent who say Edwards is, 46 percent for Clinton, 45 percent for Giuliani, 40 percent for McCain, and 27 for Romney.

Another day, another Bush veto threat

President Bush is warning Democratic leaders that any attempt to weaken federal policies that restrict abortion will be met with a veto.

White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said Friday that the warning, issued in letters to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, was intended to stop abortion amendments from being added to spending bills and other legislation that Congress will be considering in the coming weeks.

"There’s nothing specific pending right now," Fratto said.

The Republicans who held power in past sessions of Congress ensured that spending bills included language prohibiting federal funding for abortion except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest, and restricting funding for international family planning groups that might give advice on or provide abortions.

Now in the minority, House and Senate Republicans recently wrote the president urging him to make clear that any weakening of those restrictions would be unacceptable.

"The standing pattern is that appropriate conscience protections must be in place for health care entities, and that taxpayer dollars may not be used in coercive or involuntary family planning programs,"

Bush said in letters dated Thursday. "I will veto any legislation that weakens current federal policies and laws on abortion, or that encourages the destruction of human life at any stage," he wrote.

Bush has already threatened to veto legislation, passed by the House and Senate in different forms this year, that would ease restrictions on federally funded embryonic stem cell research. He killed a similar stem cell bill last year in the first veto of his presidency.

Reid’s spokesman, Jim Manley, said that "if the president is serious about finding common ground on this divisive issue, he should support Sen. Reid’s efforts to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies in this country."

Reid and others are sponsoring legislation that would improve family planning services, require insurance companies to pay for birth control and provide effective sex education for young people.

The letter was hailed by anti-abortion leaders such as Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, who said his group appreciates "that the president is drawing a bright line."

"President Bush is not the first man to occupy the Oval Office who talked about valuing preborn life, but no administration has backed up those words with as much consistent policy support as his has," said Dr. James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family Action.

On the other side, Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said Bush had essentially told the new Congress "that he wants to continue denying millions of women access to essential medical services, including family planning and safe, legal abortion, even if it means jeopardizing their health."

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

Bush urges action on new war funding bill

President Bush, urging Congress to craft a war spending bill quickly, offered no clues Saturday about whether he’ll compromise over linking U.S. support to stability in Iraq.

Bush and Congress have been talking about how to agree on a bill to finance combat operations through September. The president demands the money without strings attached, but Democrats say Bush eventually must accept some conditions on the U.S. commitment to the unpopular war.

Earlier this week, Bush vetoed a $124 billion bill that would have provided money for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while requiring troops to begin returning home by Oct. 1.

"I vetoed the bill Congress sent me because it set a fixed date to begin to pull out of Iraq, imposed unworkable conditions on our military commanders and included billions of dollars in spending unrelated to the war," Bush said in his weekly radio address.

After vetoing the bill, Bush dispatched three of his top aides to Capitol Hill to negotiate with Democrats. Those talks are to resume early next week.

Bush said that while Republicans and Democrats will not always agree on the war, the consequences of failure in Iraq are clear.

"If we were to leave Iraq before the government can defend itself, there would be a security vacuum in the country," Bush warned. "Extremists from all factions could compete to fill that vacuum, causing sectarian killing to multiply on a horrific scale."

The president also urged Congress to give the new war strategy he announced in January a chance to work.

Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, is leading the military buildup of 21,500 more U.S. troops in Iraq. The administration hopes the extra security provided by the troops in Baghdad and Anbar Province will give the Iraqis time to mend sectarian fractures within the government and resolve other reconciliation issues.

"This strategy is still in its early stages, and Congress needs to give Gen. Petraeus’ plan a chance to work," Bush said.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

Another Bush advisor jumps ship

Public support for the Iraq war is wavering. Lawmakers are battling the White House over money to fund the combat. Suicide bombings continue in Baghdad.

Despite it all, J.D. Crouch, who is stepping down from his national security post at the White House, is confident history will prove that invading Iraq was the right thing to do.

Crouch, who has been President Bush’s deputy national security adviser for more than two years, said the president never will be swayed by opposition to the war. Instead, Crouch said, Bush will use his resolve to help convince a broad section of Americans that it’s important to be in Iraq.

"I think it was really the right thing to do, and I think history will bear that out," Crouch said in an interview Thursday.

Crouch, 48, said he’s been thinking for months about leaving his job as deputy to the president’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley. The White House was to announce Crouch’s resignation on Friday.

With two big projects off his desk — one on Iraq and the other on detainees — Crouch said he thought it was time, for both him and his family, to leave the government and take a position in the private sector or academia.

Hadley said he’ll miss Crouch’s self-deprecating humor and the way his work discourages leaks.

"He was able to force people to step up to difficult issues, but do it in a way that everybody felt that they had a hearing and that the process was fair," Hadley said. "And that’s one of the reasons why I think there has been very little leaking of squabbles of State versus Defense, which you’ve seen from time to time."

For several months last year, Crouch’s cramped office in the West Wing that he’ll vacate early next month was the nerve center for the Bush administration’s top-to-bottom review of war strategy that culminated with the president’s decision in January to send more troops to Iraq.

"It’s going to still be tough and there’s still going to be a lot of bad days out there, but definitely, we’re already beginning to see some of the positive benefits," Crouch said, while acknowledging that even though Shia-Sunni violence has ebbed, terrorist attacks haven’t.

"Al-Qaida is banging away with these large car bombs and truck bombs — first to get on the front pages of our newspapers but even more so to fuel that sectarian violence," he said. "Al-Qaida is like somebody standing there spraying gasoline on the fire. They’re a real accelerant."

In his remaining time in office, Crouch says Bush hopes to see a stable Iraq and keep pressuring Iran not to develop a nuclear weapon.

Bush also wants to direct attention to his agenda of helping people around the world gain greater political freedom and economic prosperity.

"These are not things that can be solved by military solutions," Crouch said.

That might sound a bit soft from a man who in 1995 thought North Korea’s nuclear program was so ominous that the United States should send more troops to South Korea, redeploy U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea and plan airstrikes against Pyongyang just in case talking to the North Koreans didn’t work out.

"Diplomacy in Pyongyang without military power is appeasement, plain and simple," he wrote more than 10 years ago when he was associate professor of defense and strategic studies at Southwest Missouri State University.

His conservative comments became fodder for senators who grilled him in 2001 during confirmation hearings for his job as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy at the Pentagon. Though he’d changed his mind by then, he stuck to his guns.

"Given what I knew at the time, I stick by the recommendations," he told the senators.

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

Inmate gets 2 years for threatening Bush

A federal judge sentenced an Idaho inmate to three years in prison for threatening to kill George W. Bush in a letter in which the accused called the U.S. president "stupid," federal prosecutors said on Wednesday.

Ricky Arnell Ward, 20, put his name and address on the January 2006 letter he sent to the FBI claiming he planned to kill the president because "he is a stupid … man."

Ward said Bush needed to be killed before he got "all the people in the USA killed," according to a release by the U.S. attorney’s office in Idaho. He was sentenced on Monday.

When questioned by the Secret Service about the letter, Ward told them he was periodically visited by "command hallucinations," among other mental ailments, and if he received one concerning Bush after he was released from Ada County Jail in Boise, he might act on it.

He later signed a plea agreement admitting the threat, officials said.

Ward was already serving time for unrelated charges that included threats against state officials, violation of a protection order and lewd conduct with a minor.

Copyright © 2007 Reuters Limited

Bush: al-Qaida is ‘public enemy No. 1’

President Bush on Wednesday declared al-Qaida "public enemy No. 1 in Iraq," placing increasing emphasis on the terror network forever associated with the deadliest attack in U.S. history.

The president also seemed to offer another definition of success in Iraq — not a lack of violence, but a livable level for citizens.

In a speech to construction contractors, Bush put a heavy focus on al-Qaida, which carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. In doing so, he sought more bluntly to cast the unpopular Iraq war in terms that U.S. citizens could connect to their own lives.

"For America, the decision we face in Iraq is not whether we ought to take sides in a civil war, it’s whether we stay in the fight against the same international terrorist network that attacked us on 9/11," Bush said. "I strongly believe it’s in our national interest to stay in the fight."

On Capitol Hill and across the nation, support for the war has long eroded as sectarian bloodletting gripped Baghdad. In the eyes of Democratic lawmakers and much of the war-weary public, U.S. forces have been dragged into a civil war between Shiites and Sunnis.

"The recent attacks are not the revenge killings that some have called a civil war," Bush told the Associated General Contractors of America. "They are a systematic assault on the entire nation. Al-Qaida is public enemy No. 1 in Iraq."

The Bush administration dates the unleashing of sectarian violence to the 2006 bombing of a Shiite shrine in the town of Samarra north of Baghdad, which triggered reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics. But recently, Bush said Wednesday, al-Qaida’s brutality has failed to provoke the sectarian reprisals that it wants.

U.S. military leaders say sectarian attacks in Baghdad have declined, but overall violence remains high.

Bush warned that "casualties are likely to stay high."

"Either we’ll succeed, or we won’t succeed," he said. "And the definition of success as I described is sectarian violence down. Success is not no violence. … But success is a level of violence where the people feel comfortable about living their daily lives."

Before the November election, Bush insisted to the media that the United States was "absolutely winning" the war. In December, he said the United States was neither winning nor losing, then clarified that he meant the U.S. was not succeeding as fast as he wanted.

The White House has repeatedly characterized success as an Iraq that can govern, sustain and defend itself.

The president was not "stepping back" at all from that goal in his speech, Bush spokesman Tony Snow said later.

Asked if describing al-Qaida as the main enemy is more politically persuasive, Snow said: "The characterizations here are not part of a sales pitch. They’re an attempt to try to reflect what’s going on the ground."

Copyright © 2007 The Associated Press

The Gonzales factor

At least two people don’t think Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign, Gonzales and the only person whose opinion in this matter counts, President Bush. But this week there were clear indications that Gonzales’ continued tenure is beginning to hurt the administration with Congress.

The Senate Intelligence Committee greeted with skepticism and suspicion a Bush administration request to pass a bill giving it a freer hand in using warrantless wiretaps to eavesdrop on Americans.

In 2001, the White House secretly ordered the National Security Agency to begin eavesdropping on overseas telephone calls and e-mails without first obtaining a warrant. The opinion saying the president could ignore the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was drafted by Gonzales, then at the White House.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and his Republican counterpart, Kit Bond of Missouri, have been trying for a year to obtain that opinion and its supporting documents. Rockefeller indicated the committee was getting impatient at the stonewalling.

Gonzales’ changing explanations and inexplicable memory gaps over the firings of eight U.S. attorneys hasn’t helped his credibility, nor have revelations about the FBI’s indiscriminate use of National Security Letters to spy on Americans.

"The attorney general has thoroughly and utterly lost my confidence," said Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.

In January, the White House finally and grudgingly agreed that the National Security Agency would have to obtain eavesdropping warrants from a secret court as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires. But the lawmakers believe Bush still reserves the right to ignore the law. And, as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., pointed out, "There’s nothing in this bill that confines the president to work within FISA."

The administration is invoking its standard mantra to the lawmakers: Trust us. Thanks in part to Gonzales, it seems that they no longer do and the wiretap bill could be a casualty of that.

–DALE McFEATTERS