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US will withdraw forces if new Iraqi govt asks: Bush

January 28, 2005 15:20 IST

The United States would withdraw forces from Iraq if the new government that is elected asks Washington to do so, President George W Bush has said.

Bush said he expects Iraq's first democratically elected leaders would want the troops to remain as helpers, not as occupiers.

"I've heard the voices of the people that presumably will be in positions of responsibility after these elections...but it seems that most of the leadership there understands that there will be a need for coalition troops at least until the Iraqis are able to fight," he told The New York Times in an interview published on Friday.

But, the Times says, Bush did not say who he expects would emerge victorious. Asked if, as a matter of principle, the United States would pull out of Iraq at the request of a new government, he said: "Yes, absolutely. This is a sovereign
government - they're on their feet."

Some members of the administration, the Times noted, have made similar pledges, but this was the first time Bush has
done so.

In a 40-minute interview in the Oval Office, Bush said that with the coming election, "we are watching history being made, history that will change the world."

That has been Bush's message in a series of interviews he has given in the days before and after his Inaugural Address on January 20.

Later drawing Iraq into a broader plan for democracy in the Middle East, he said: "I think two of the great ironies of history is there will be a Palestinian state and a democratic Iraq showing the way forward for people who desperately want to be free."

The American president praised Mahmoud Abbas, the new Palestinian leader, as a man who "has the will of the people with him, and that inspires leaders."

Bush acknowledged that many Iraqis still viewed the US as an occupying force, though, the Times said, he stopped short of endorsing the view of a growing number of Republicans that the sheer size of the US presence in Iraq was worsening the violence by presenting insurgents with a large target.

"The fundamental question also that I think a lot of Iraqis understand - and I do too - is how do we make sure the Iraqi citizens view US troops as helpers, not as occupiers.

"To the extent that a coalition presence is viewed as an occupying force, it enables the insurgents, the radicals, to continue to impress people that the government really is not their government, and that the government is complicit in having their country occupied," Bush said.

"I view that as reasonable," he said. "I also view that as pretty hopeful that there is nationalistic sentiment, that 'this is my country.' To me that's a positive sign," he added.

He noted "a certain realism among the [Iraqi] leadership, at least the ones I've talked to, that say 'Look there's more work to do before we are ready to move out on our own.'"

He said a recent proposal by Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain to put calmer parts of the country entirely in the hands of Iraqi troops is "certainly one option," but added that he had not yet discussed it with his close ally.

But even while acknowledging that Iraq is at a pivotal point in its history, Bush, the Times said, appeared far more relaxed than he was in August, when he was last interviewed during a campaign stop in New Mexico.

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