WASHINGTON — President Bush and his Iraqi counterpart refused Tuesday to set a deadline for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, but the Iraqi leader said he hoped his security forces would be ready to take over defense of his country by the end of next year.
"As Iraqis stand up, America will stand down," Bush said at a joint news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani after their White House meeting.
Bush said the United States will not relent in its support of Iraq's new and fragile democracy despite "acts of staggering brutality" in the country. "I pledge we will not waver, and I appreciate your same pledge," he told Talabani during the news conference. "Iraq will take its place among the world's democracies."
Talabani said the U.S. and Iraq will jointly decide when U.S. troops can depart. He said hoped "by the end of 2006 our security forces are up to the level of taking responsibility from many American troops."
Still, he said, "We will set no timetable for withdrawal. A timetable will help the terrorists."
Bush is balancing a harried schedule of diplomatic duties this week — from Iraq to China and the United Nations — while working to stay on top of hurricane recovery efforts that most Americans say should be his No. 1 priority. After meeting with Talabani, Bush was traveling to New York for meetings at the United Nations, where he was expected to thank the global community for their contributions to storm relief but also focus on international issues like terrorism, trade and debt relief.
Talabani's comments came as his country prepares for a referendum next month on the country's new constitution. Bush, meanwhile, is facing falling support in the polls for his policies in Iraq and at home
Talabani railed against the insurgents in Iraq and said U.S. forces are still needed in Iraq, despite some calls in the United States to start bringing them home.
"As soon as possible, of course, we hope that American troops can proudly return home," he said.
Bush, meanwhile, renewed criticism of Iraq's neighbor Syria, which he accused of not doing enough to control the flow of fighters sneaking into Iraq.
"The Syrian leader must understand we take his lack of action seriously," he said. "The government is going to be more and more isolated."
Bush said he would speak with U.S. allies with the aim of getting Syria to change its behavior.
The Bush administration's top envoy in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, warned Monday that the U.S. is running out of patience with Damascus and refused to rule out a military strike against Syria or punishment through the United Nations.
Asked whether Iran will soon be referred to the United Nations Security Council for possible sanctions over the nature and purpose of its nuclear program, Bush was not specific. The Bush administration has long favored taking Iran before the world body for allegedly concealing a nuclear weapons development program behind a legitimate civilian nuclear energy project.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog agency may refer Iran's case to the Security Council within a few days, but that does not necessarily seal Iran's fate. China, Russia and perhaps other members of the powerful Security Council may balk at imposing sanctions, and the Bush administration has undertaken an international lobbying campaign.
"It should be a warning to all of us that they ... in the past didn't fully disclose their programs, their programs aimed at helping them develop a weapon," Bush said.
On Iraq, Americans seem to have shifted their focus away from Iraq and terrorist threats to problems at home. For the first time since the terrorist attacks on the U.S. four years ago, a majority of Americans responding to a poll by the Pew Research Center last week said it is more important for the president to focus on domestic policy than the war on terrorism.
Another poll by Time magazine found six in 10 Americans think the U.S. should cut back spending on Iraq to help pay for the storm response, while about the same number favor a partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq to help with storm damage.
The president sharply disputed suggestions on Monday that the military is stretched too thin to help Iraq and the Gulf Coast rebuild.
"We've got plenty of troops to do both," Bush said after his first on-the-ground tour of cleanup efforts in the streets of New Orleans. "It is preposterous to claim that the engagement in Iraq meant there wasn't enough troops here, just pure and simple."