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U.S.: Bush Insists Iraq 'Coalition Of The Willing' Not Crumbling

By Andrew Tully

U.S. President George W. Bush held an unexpected news conference at the White House on 16 March in which he faced questions about the dwindling military coalition in Iraq, the European and American effort to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions and suspicions that the United States is sending suspected foreign militants to their home countries, where they might face torture during interrogations.

Washington, 16 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Bush denied his so-called "coalition of the willing" in Iraq is falling apart, a day after Italy said it will begin withdrawing some of its 3,000 troops from the effort.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has been one of the strongest supporters of the U.S. Iraq policy, despite broad anti-war sentiment in his country. He announced the withdrawal plans on 15 March, two weeks after U.S. troops killed an Italian intelligence agent who had just helped free an Italian hostage in Iraq.

Bush said he had spoken by phone with Berlusconi and that the Italian leader assured him the withdrawal would not be hasty: "[Prime Minister Berlusconi] brought up the issue of Italian troops in Iraq and said, first of all, he wanted me to know that there was no change in his policy; that, in fact, any withdrawals will be done in consultation with allies and would be done depending upon the ability of Iraqis to defend themselves."

Fourteen countries have withdrawn their forces from Iraq. They include Spain -- another former staunch Bush ally -- which began its own pullout after the train bombings of March 11, 2004, that have been attributed to militants aligned with Al-Qaeda.

Bush also was asked whether the successful elections this year in Iraq and the Palestinian territories, as well as the growing pro-democracy movement in Lebanon, have vindicated him in light of the criticism he has faced for invading Iraq.

The president said he doesn't worry about vindication. He noted that historians are constantly re-evaluating the legacies of previous presidents, and he expects the same will be true of his own administration. Instead, he said, praise should go to the Iraqi people for setting an admirable example by voting on 30 January despite threats from insurgents.

"The people who deserve the credit in Iraq are the Iraqi citizens that defied the terrorists," Bush said. "Imagine what it would be like to try to go vote thinking that there could be a suicide bomber standing next to you in line, or that somebody would lob a shell or a mortar at you. The courage of the Iraqi citizens was just overwhelming."

On Iran, a reporter asked Bush if the United States and its European negotiating partners plan to offer Tehran more incentives in their effort to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear programs. The questioner noted that already, Iran has dismissed recent incentives offered by the Europeans and by the United States.

Bush said there is still time before the United States and Europe need to ask the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on Iran. "The understanding is we go to the Security Council if they (Iran) reject the offer," Bush said. "And I hope they don't. I hope they realize the world is clear about making sure that they don't end up with a nuclear weapon."

Another question addressed the growing concern about what the Bush administration calls "rendition" -- deporting to their native lands foreigners suspected of having links to militant organizations.

There is suspicion that these people may be tortured in their home countries, making the United States at least indirectly complicit in the abuse. Some have accused the Bush administration of turning a blind eye to the torture in hopes of extracting useful intelligence from the interrogations.

But Bush was insistent that the United States requires assurances from these countries that the suspects will not be abused. One reporter pressed him, citing reported abuses in Uzbekistan.

Bush cut off the questioner, saying: "We seek assurances that nobody will be tortured when we render a person back to their home country."

Bush also praised Paul Wolfowitz, his nominee for president of the World Bank. Wolfowitz is now deputy defense secretary and has been a focus of criticism for the Bush administration's military policies in general and the invasion of Iraq in particular.

According to Bush, Wolfowitz is a "compassionate, decent man" who would do a fine job running the World Bank. He would replace James Wolfensohn, who is resigning on 1 June at the end of his second five-year term.

The office of president of the World Bank is usually reserved for an American because the United States is the bank's largest shareholder. The post of managing director of its sister organization, the International Monetary Fund, traditionally is filled by a European.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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