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Bush says new Iraqi government must decide on al-Sadr's role

WASHINGTON—President Bush said Tuesday that the United States wouldn't stand in the way of rebel Shiite Muslim cleric Muqtada al-Sadr—whose forces fought American troops all spring and whom Bush once described as a thug—if he seeks to play a political role in Iraq.

At a White House news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Bush said it would be up to the new Iraqi government to decide whether to allow al-Sadr to participate in the political process.

"The interim Iraqi government will deal with al-Sadr in the way they see fit," Bush said in the White House Rose Garden. "They're sovereign. When we say we transfer full sovereignty, we mean we transfer full sovereignty. And they will deal with him appropriately."

Bush's remarks came after Iraqi President Ghazi al Yawer invited al-Sadr to participate as a political leader in Iraqi elections scheduled for January.

Al-Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, clashed with U.S. forces earlier this spring in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. American officials vowed to capture or kill him after his army led an uprising against U.S.-led occupation troops.

Initially, American military officials described al-Sadr's forces as a street gang. As confrontations with his militia continued, Bush called the cleric a thug.

"Free societies do not allow thugs to roam streets and hold people hostage to their whims," Bush said in a speech May 5. "The Iraqis will deal with Mr. Sadr."

Al-Sadr, under pressure from other Shiite religious leaders opposed to the fighting near holy shrines, eventually agreed to a truce.

Bush used the al-Sadr scenario and questions about the possibility of turning over former dictator Saddam Hussein to the Iraqi government to show that his administration intends to take a hands-off approach once the new Iraqi government assumes power July 1.

The president noted that the transfer date doesn't mean a full and functioning Iraqi government will be up and running smoothly. He pleaded for time.

"These aren't easy tasks," he said. "I mean, somehow, there's expectation (that) this is supposed to happen yesterday. That's not the way it works when you go from a society that was subjugated to a tyrant, by a tyrant, to a free society."

With Karzai at his side, Bush touted Afghanistan as a model for Iraq to follow. After the U.S.-led coalition invaded that country and routed the hard-line Taliban movement, "Afghanistan is no longer a terrorist factory sending thousands of killers into the world."

Bush touched on a wide range of other topics, including:

_The economy. He predicted that the prospect of higher inflation and rising interest rates won't scuttle his re-election bid the way it did his father's in 1992.

"I think one thing American people have seen is that I know how to lead," he said. "The economic stimulus plan we put in place is working now."

_ Religion and politics. At the California burial ceremony for former President Reagan last Friday, his son Ron Reagan Jr. criticized elected officials who use religion for political gain. The younger Reagan said his father was "a deeply, unabashedly religious man, but he never made the fatal mistake of so many politicians, wearing his religious faith on his sleeve to gain political advantage."

Asked about those comments, Bush said: "I think it's important for people of religion to serve. ... I think it is very important for people who are serving to make sure there's a separation between church and state."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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