U.S. President George Bush is reaffirming the American commitment to keeping American troops in Iraq even after the country returns to self-rule, now expected by the middle of next year. He made the comments during a meeting Monday with a group of Iraqi women leaders at the White House.
President Bush says next year's formal end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq will not amount to an exit strategy. Nor, he said, will it mean the end of the U.S. military presence in the country.
He spoke to reporters during a meeting with Iraqi women leaders, two of whom serve on Iraq's U.S.-installed Governing Council.
"I assured these women that America wasn't leaving," the president said. "When they hear me say we're staying, that means we're staying. And precisely what the terrorists want to do is to try to drive us out of Iraq before these leaders and other leaders are able to put their government together and live in peace. And we will succeed."
One of the Iraqi women who met with the president is Governing Council member Songul Chapouk, a Turkoman from Baghdad who asked that U.S. troops not leave until Iraq has trained security forces capable of taking on the job.
"We need them because we have open borders and we don't have an army and we don't have trained policemen so we need them at this time and we asked them to not leave us at this time," she said.
But it will be up to the sovereign Iraqi government that is set to take power next year to decide whether to invite American troops to stay on. U.S. officials expect it will. That provisional government is set to take over in mid-2004, now that the Bush administration has changed strategy on Iraq and agreed to a quicker hand-over of power - amid increasing attacks on U.S. forces by guerillas opposed to the American military presence.
Iraq will be at the top of the agenda when President Bush meets with British Prime Minister Tony Blair during a state visit to London beginning Tuesday, a visit expected to draw tens of thousands of anti-Bush protesters opposed to the Iraq war - and angry over Prime Minister Blair's staunch support for the Bush administration's Iraq policy.