TALLINN, (Reuters) – U.S. President George W. Bush deflected talk of civil war in Iraq on Tuesday and said Washington’s conditions for talking to Iran remained that Tehran must first suspend nuclear fuel enrichment.
Asked what the difference was between the current bloodshed in Iraq and civil war, Bush said the latest bombings were part of a nine-month-old pattern of attacks by al Qaeda militants aimed at fomenting sectarian violence by provoking retaliation.
After talks with Estonian President Toomas Ilves on his way to a NATO summit in neighbouring Latvia, Bush said while Iraq’s government was free to talk to Iran about helping end the violence, U.S. terms for direct talks with Tehran were unchanged. “As far as the United States goes, Iran knows how to get to the table with us, which is to do that which they said they would do, which is verifiably suspend their enrichment programme,” he told a joint news conference.
“Iraq is a sovereign nation which is conducting its own foreign policy. They’re having talks with their neighbours and if that’s what what they think they ought to do, that’s fine,” Bush said.
Ahead of a two-day meeting in Jordan between Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to begin on Wednesday, Iraq is grappling with its worst violence since U.S. forces ousted Saddam Hussein’s government in April, 2003.
A car bombing in a Shi’ite neighbourhood of Baghdad last Thursday killed more than 200 people, triggering a series of retaliatory attacks.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Iraq is close to civil war and the U.S. television network NBC has already labeled it one.
But Bush said the recent unrest was part of a wave of violence that began last February with the bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad. “We’ve been in this phase for a while,” Bush said. “What you’re seeing on TV started last February. It was an attempt by people to foment sectarian violence. “There’s a lot of sectarian violence taking place — fomented in my opinion because of these attacks by al Qaeda causing people to seek reprisal,” he added.
Bush is facing growing pressure to shift course on Iraq after voters ousted his Republican Party from power in Congress earlier this month. Some prominent Democrats have urged a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops starting in four to six months.
Bush is awaiting recommendations for Iraq from a panel led by former secretary of state James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton.
The Iraq Study Group, which will present its findings in December, may recommend that Bush convene a regional conference on Iraq and that he consider talking directly to Iran and Syria to solicit their help.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a meeting on Monday in Tehran with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said his country would do whatever it could to help provide security to Iraq. The Bush administration, however, believes Iran is a potential threat to Middle East peace because of its nuclear programme, which Tehran says is purely peaceful but Washington fears is aimed at developing atomic weapons.