Tue 21 September, 2004 17:29
By Steve Holland
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - President George W. Bush has defended the Iraq war before sceptical world leaders, called on them to help post-Saddam Iraq develop into a democracy and vowed not to retreat against an insurgency that threatens more violence in the country.
In a U.N. speech on Tuesday with election-year overtones, Bush made no apologies about his decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003 without U.N. Security Council backing based on claims Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which were not found.
In fact, he reminded the General Assembly of the Security Council's failure to join with the U.S.-led coalition in carrying out its threat in a resolution passed unanimously before the war of serious consequences for Iraq for disobeying U.N. resolutions.
"The commitments we make must have meaning," Bush said. "When we say serious consequences for the sake of peace, there must be serious consequences."
Bush appeared at the United Nations at a time of rising casualties in I raq and when some lawmakers in his own Republican Party are questioning his Iraq policy.
Democratic presidential nominee Senator John Kerry, in a speech in New York on Monday, accused Bush of "colossal failures of judgement" that have turned Iraq into a haven for terrorists and made America more vulnerable.
Bush cited the presence of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi among the assembled world leaders as an example of a new Iraq on a path to democracy, along with post-Taliban Afghanistan.
"The U.N., and its member nations, must respond to Prime Minister Allawi's request, and do more to help build an Iraq that is secure, democratic, federal, and free," he said.
Bush predicted more violence in the days ahead as both Iraq and Afghanistan attempt to hold national elections -- next month in Afghanistan, and in January in Iraq.
"The work ahead is demanding. But these difficulties will not shake our conviction that the future of Afghanistan and Iraq is a future of liberty. The proper response to difficulty i s not to retreat -- it is to prevail," he said.
He cast the Iraq conflict as a moment of opportunity for transforming the Middle East and in a direct challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, urged Israel to impose a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and to dismantle "unauthorised outposts."
Bush got no more than polite applause at the end of his speech.
Kerry is holding out the possibility that if elected, a U.S. troop withdrawal could begin next summer and be completed within four years.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in New York the insurgency must be defeated and he dismissed Kerry's talk of an early troop withdrawal. Bush has given no such timetable.
"And so we are facing a challenging insurgency. We have to defeat it, but let's not talk about leaving next year. We must finish the job that we have started and I am confident we will finish the job," Powell said.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, speaking before Bush, took a veiled swipe at the United States by citing "disgraceful" prisoner abuse in Iraq as an example of violations of international law, while also denouncing an insurgency where civilians are massacred and relief workers, journalists and others "are taken hostage and put to death in the most barbarous fashion."
Annan said in a BBC interview last week the U.S.-led war in Iraq was "illegal" because it did not get U.N. Security Council approval, although he said his office was now doing what it could to help rebuild the country.
Bush had a domestic audience as well on Tuesday. His re-election campaign has pitched the Iraq war as an extension of the war on terrorism, drawing support from many Americans anxious to avoid a repeat of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"Coalition forces now serving in Iraq are confronting the terrorists and foreign fighters, so peaceful nations around the world will never have to face them within our own borders," Bush said.