Bush dwells on Iraq, US economy in his State of the Union speech

Bush dwells on Iraq, US economy in his State of the Union speech
# 29 January 2008 10:59 (UTC +04:00)
With barely 12 months before his term ends, and less before the race to the November elections all but sidelines him, Bush also vowed to "confront" Iran where necessary and do "everything we can" to reach a Middle East peace deal.
The president used his final annual State of the Union address to defend his deeply unpopular handling of what US voters say are their top two concerns: the nearly five-year-old Iraq war and economic turmoil.
"In the long run, Americans can be confident about our economic growth, but in the short run, we can all see that that growth is slowing," he said, urging lawmakers to speed approval of a 150-billion-dollar (102-billion-euro) stimulus package he agreed last week with Congressional leaders.
On Iraq, Bush defended his decision one year ago to "surge" 30,000 more troops into the war-torn country and warned that a hasty troop withdrawal would leave the fragile political and security progress there in ruins.
"Having come so far and achieved so much, we must not allow this to happen," he declared, adding that US forces were starting to come home and more would do so in 2008 as their role there changes.
"Our objective in the coming year is to sustain and build on the gains we made in 2007, while transitioning to the next phase of our strategy. American troops are shifting from leading operations, to partnering with Iraqi forces, and, eventually, to a protective overwatch mission," he said.
Bush cautioned that "we can still expect tough fighting ahead." A senior aide said a progress report in March or April would shape any draw-down decision beyond current plans to bring some 20,000 soldiers home by July.
Bush had promised the crackdown would quiet sectarian violence that he blamed for thwarting Iraqi national reconciliation and that Iraqi security forces would be in charge of the whole country by November.
But 2007 proved the deadliest year for US troops since the 2003 invasion, major political progress has been elusive, and Iraqi officials have suggested that it may not be until 2012 that they can assume full control of security.
The president unveiled no bold new proposals, instead frequently invoking "the past seven years" in a speech that, at times, sounded as if he were polishing his legacy, anticipating his own political obituary.
Democrats hope that deep dissatisfaction with his record will help them retain control of Congress and reconquer the White House. Some of his Republicans worry he could be a liability.
A January 20-22 Wall Street Journal survey found that 64 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush’s handling of the economy and 67 percent his record on Iraq -- issues that will shape the race to succeed him.
The leading Democratic presidential hopefuls, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, roundly criticized Bush on the leading issues in his speech.
Clinton called it "more of the same -- a frustrating commitment to the same failed policies that helped turn record surpluses into large deficits, and push a thriving 21st-century economy to the brink of recession."
Obama said: "The only way we’re finally going to pressure the Iraqis to reconcile and take responsibility for their future is to immediately begin the responsible withdrawal of our combat brigades."
He described the speech as "full of the same empty rhetoric the American people have come to expect from this president."
The Republican nationwide presidential frontrunner according to poll averages, John McCain, backed Bush’s economic package. "We should pass it quickly," he told CNN news.
Bush, who used the annual speech in 2003 to lump Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with Iran and North Korea in an "axis of evil," urged Tehran to freeze uranium enrichment that Washington fears is a step towards nuclear arms, and to stop backing extremists abroad.
"America will confront those who threaten our troops, we will stand by our allies, and we will defend our vital interests in the Persian Gulf," he warned.
Bush called for the United States to stay the course in Afghanistan, for his giant tax cuts to be made permanent, and pressed the Congress to approve free trade pacts with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.
"If we fail to pass this (US-Colombia) agreement, we will embolden the purveyors of false populism in our hemisphere," he said. An aide confirmed this was a swipe at Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. /APA/
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