WASHINGTON—Battling jet lag after his surprise trip to Baghdad, President Bush expressed confidence in the new Iraqi government on Wednesday but warned against expectations of a quick turnabout.
"The challenges that remain are serious, and they will require more sacrifice and patience," he said at a Rose Garden news conference hours after his early morning return to the White House. "I hope there's not an expectation from people that, all of a sudden, there's going to be zero violence."
As Bush spoke, nearly 50,000 Iraqi troops and police, backed by 7,200 troops from the United States and its allies, launched Operation Together Forward, a new effort to bring order to Baghdad. Security forces established checkpoints, imposed a vehicular curfew and declared their intention to impose a stringent weapons ban in a city plagued by sectarian violence, kidnappings and suicide bombings.
Aides to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he recognizes that the violence threatens the future of his government. Indeed, many believe that al-Maliki's administration won't survive its four-year term if he can't improve security.
The first day of the new security offensive looked much like an operation carried out by former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari in Baghdad in May 2005, which achieved little. Back then, violence surged after the government set up checkpoints and conducted scores of raids throughout the capital.
Al-Maliki said Wednesday that his plan, unlike al-Jaafari's, includes improvements in services such as electricity and water, which should build support for his government.
In Washington, Bush counseled patience.
"We've got to recognize that it's going to take time," he said.
But some experts say time is running out for Bush's vision of a stable, unified Iraqi democracy. A series of articles in the next edition of Foreign Affairs, a respected foreign policy journal, provides a grim counterpoint to the president's optimism.
The five experts consulted said that Bush's goal of a united Iraq ruled jointly by Kurds, Shiites and Sunni Muslims is unlikely. The July/August edition will hit newsstands on Wednesday.
"Iraq is already in the midst of a very violent civil conflict, which claims 500 to 1,000 lives or more every month," said Larry Diamond, a former adviser for the post-invasion provisional government in Iraq. "Washington needs a new strategy."
Chaim Kaufman, an associate professor of international relations at Lehigh University, said the best hope is to separate Iraq's ethnic groups into segregated enclaves, protected by heavily guarded checkpoints and barbed wire.
"At an earlier stage, this conflict might have been resolvable by compromise. But at this point, that is no longer possible," Kaufman wrote.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives and the Senate are expected to hold their first full-fledged debates on Iraq since the United States toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. House Republicans are offering a resolution that equates the war in Iraq with the broader war against terrorism. It rejects setting a specific date for withdrawal.
In the Senate, Democrats want to vote on a measure that would begin troop withdrawal this year. A handful of Democrats, including Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, want full withdrawal by the end of this year, but that proposal is likely to get only a few votes.
Sectarian tensions were evident during the latest security crackdown in Baghdad.
Many Sunnis worry that the Shiite-led government will target their neighborhoods. On Wednesday, Iraqis in mostly Sunni neighborhoods said they saw a heavy police and army presence. Shiites said there was nothing out of the ordinary on their streets.
Bush acknowledged difficulties, but he said his trip bolstered his faith that al-Maliki and his Cabinet can restore order, improve the economy and unite Iraqis.
"I thought it was important to sit down with him and talk to him in person. I saw firsthand the strength of his character and his deep determination to succeed," Bush said. "One of the reasons I went to Iraq was to be able to sit down with an Iraqi government to determine whether or not they have the will to succeed. ... I've eliminated that uncertainty."
The president's snap judgment was reminiscent of his initial assessment of Russian President Vladimir Putin, formed during their first face-to-face meeting in June 2001.
"I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy," Bush told reporters after the encounter. "I was able to get a sense of his soul."
Administration officials acknowledge that Putin didn't turn out to be the kind of soul mate that Bush expected. Perhaps with that in mind, Bush avoided definitive predictions Wednesday about Iraq's future.
He also backed away from his claim last week that the Iraqi government was in a position to "turn the tide" in its struggle to end insurgent violence.
"Did I say those words?" Bush asked. "I sense something different happening in Iraq. The progress will be steady toward a goal that has been clearly defined."
(Youssef reported to this report from Baghdad, Iraq.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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