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Bush deflects questions about civil war in Iraq

RIGA, Latvia—President Bush said Tuesday that he intended to press Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki this week for a plan to stem growing sectarian violence and a strategy for how the country will sustain and govern itself.

On the eve of his initial meeting with al-Maliki in Jordan, the president blamed the escalating violence on an al-Qaida plot aimed at fueling sectarian fighting, and he placed responsibility for ending it largely on al-Maliki's shoulders.

"No question it's dangerous there, and violent," Bush said at a news conference with Estonian President Toomas Hendrik during a stop in Tallinn, Estonia. "And the Maliki government is going to have to deal with that violence, and we want to help them to do so."

Although Washington is boiling with expectations that the new Democratic Congress and a blue-ribbon bipartisan commission soon will push Bush toward a plan for phased withdrawal from Iraq, the president gave no sign of that Tuesday. He vowed again that U.S. troops will stay until the mission is complete, and shrugged off talk of negotiating with Syria and Iran for help in calming Iraq.

His remarks about al-Maliki came before his arrival at Riga, Latvia, where he's attending a two-day North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit. The NATO agenda centers on improving the organization's ability to battle 21st-century security threats, but most of the talk in Riga has been about deteriorating security in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iraq lately has experienced the worst bloodshed since U.S.-led forces invaded in March 2003. Last week's bombings killed at least 160 people and wounded more than 200. More than 3,700 Iraqis were killed in October, the highest monthly death toll since the war began. The spike in violence prompted United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan to say Monday that Iraq is close to civil war—and many independent authorities say it's already civil war.

Bush rejected that conclusion. Tuesday he blamed Iraq's worsening violence on al-Qaida.

"You know, the plans of Mr. Zarqawi was to foment sectarian violence," he said, referring to the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led the group al-Qaida in Iraq until a U.S. airstrike killed him last June. "The Samarra bombing that took place last winter was intended to create sectarian violence, and it has. The recent bombings were to perpetuate the sectarian violence. In other words, we've been in this phase for a while."

The bombing of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra last February did spark a surge in sectarian violence, but it's not known whether al-Zarqawi was responsible for it. In addition, sectarian violence between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has been a condition of life in Iraq for centuries. It exploded out of control again after the removal of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship left a vacuum of power, and U.S.-led occupation forces failed to fill it with enough troops to restrain the violence.

Bush promised to be flexible with his Iraq strategy, changing it as conditions there change—but he vowed that U.S. troops would stay as long as necessary.

"There's one thing I'm not going to do: I'm not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete," he said during a speech at Latvia University's Grand Hall. "We can accept nothing less than victory for our children and our grandchildren."

He framed the stakes as a struggle throughout the Middle East between forces of terrorism and freedom, and warned that if the terrorists win, they could pose "a mortal threat to Europe, America and the entire civilized world."

Earlier, in Estonia, Bush had shrugged off talk of negotiating with Syria and Iran toward a solution for Iraq. He said Iran would have to verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment program before the United States sat at a negotiating table with it.

"But as far as Iraq goes, the Iraqi government is a sovereign government that is capable of handling its own foreign policies, and is in the process of doing so," he said. "And they have made it abundantly clear—and I agree with them—that the Iranians and Syrians should help, not destabilize this young democracy."

At the NATO summit, Bush turned his attention to Afghanistan, where the 26-nation alliance is struggling to provide security against resurgent Taliban forces. Despite having 40,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops on the ground, Afghanistan this year has experienced the most bloodshed since the 2001 military intervention that toppled the Taliban and drove al-Qaida out of the country.

Bush implored NATO members to provide commanders in Afghanistan with "the resources and flexibility they need to do their jobs," a veiled reference to the restrictions some countries have placed on how their troops are used in Afghanistan. The restrictions keep some units in the safer northern portion of the country while troops from Canada, the Netherlands and Great Britain endure most of the combat in the south.

Bush claimed that NATO's mission has helped to sustain Afghanistan's fledgling democracy but he warned that "defeating (the enemy) will require the full commitment of our alliance."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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