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Journalists discuss latest Iraq speech

A key point: Bush says he would make same choices today

CNN's senior political correspondent Candy Crowley



• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


On the Scene
John King
Christiane Amanpour

ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- President Bush on Monday compared the struggle to build a democracy in Iraq to the troubled birth of the United States.

His speech in Philadelphia, the third of four, was aimed at gaining support for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, amid dwindling support for the war.

CNN's Daryn Kagan joined John King and Candy Crowley in Washington and Christiane Amanpour in Baghdad to discuss the president's speech and the political fight in Iraq.

KAGAN: Candy, first to you. This was a surprise for us to see the president -- just as we thought he was going to leave the stage -- open it up for questions.

CROWLEY: It was. And it also makes you wonder why they didn't do it before. In fact, that, to me, was the strongest part of the whole hour-plus -- when he did that.

I just want to point out the thing that I think will bubble up here ... is, "Knowing what I know today, I'd do the same thing again." We have seen over the past several months people saying, "Well, knowing now what the intelligence says, I would have voted differently, I would have done this."

This may be classic George Bush, but it's an important statement given how much time has passed: "Knowing what I know today, I'll do the same thing again."

KAGAN: Christiane, to you. A couple points that the president was making ... that this is a battle to make Iraq nationalistic ... and not to have sectarianism take place. Also, focusing on the importance of Sunni involvement in this week's elections.

AMANPOUR: Well, I think that was the heart of the -- what people here are interested in. Almost as a sort of an afterthought, towards the end of the speech the president said that he doesn't believe the fears -- which are not just in this country, but around the whole region -- the fears of civil war are justified. But that is precisely what the people of Iraq, many of them, fear ...

Because as the president mentioned ... [concerning] the referendum that was voted on ... in October, many people believe that ... while it has exceptionally great passages ... it also potentially sows the seeds for further disintegration, because it does explicitly give the right of autonomy to the Kurds and potentially other groups. [This would] make the Sunnis -- who are the minority in the more impoverished part of this country -- feel very, very nervous.

He also said that what Iraqis do not want is to live under an Iran-style theocratic government. And this is precisely what they fear, because the majority Shiites have won. They have the biggest bulk in the parliament right now.

We don't know what's going to happen on Thursday. But right now, they are very concerned -- the Sunnis, for instance -- that this is simply sort of a rule of the majority with actually no concern for the minority. And these issues of prisoner abuse, torture chambers and other such things simply go to reinforce those fears.

Why do we dwell so much on the rights and feelings of the Sunnis? Because they are the ones whose disaffection fuels this insurgency.

If the insurgency doesn't get under control, then ... Iraq won't be all right in the future, and the U.S. will find it harder to leave. So there are some very, very important issues here that could go either way. And the biggest one really is whether Iraq will be preserved as a natural, pluralistic, unified whole, or whether the best that can be hoped for is some kind of loose federation -- and [at] worst, a violent disintegration.

And all of this is at stake at these elections on Thursday. And depending on who wins, what kind of coalitions are cobbled together, and most especially, whether it is secular or nationalist ... this is going to be what everybody is going to be watching for.

KAGAN: Now to John King back in Washington, D.C.

Christiane was mentioning this a little bit, how the president mentioned Iran and Syria ... specifically and the trouble they might cause ...

What do you make of those comments from the president?

KING: Well, I think the overall theme of the president here ... is that we're making some adjustments, some things have not gone as planned. The president didn't use the word. But clearly mistakes have been made along the way, but "I'm not changing the big picture."

The picture, the president says, is a down payment on democracy. He says other governments in the region will ultimately have to change.

Now, of course he would like the governments of Iran and Syria to change. And what the president was saying in that speech was, "We're watching. We know you're trying to meddle in the elections, in the case of Iran. We know you're letting insurgents come back across the border, in the case of Syria..."

But clearly, the president is still trying to stick to that broader vision he outlined in his inaugural address almost a year ago ... where he said the overriding foreign policy goal of his second term would be spreading democracy around the world, especially and beginning in the Middle East. The setbacks in Iraq have delayed that agenda -- many would say knocked it off the table. The president's trying to say, "It's still on my mind, but first, let's ... try to get Iraq right.

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