The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
March 20, 2006

Press Gaggle by Scott McClellan
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Cleveland, Ohio

11:35 A.M. EST

MR. McCLELLAN: Good morning, everybody. Let me first just quickly kind of go over the day. The President had his usual intelligence briefing this morning. And then he met with his Secretary of State. Following that the President was pleased to welcome NATO Secretary General de Hoop Scheffer back to the White House. They had a good discussion. You heard from -- well, you all didn't, but your colleagues heard from them right after that meeting took place

We're going to be going to Cleveland, where the President will continue to update the American people about our strategy for victory in Iraq. Specifically, today, the President is going to tell the story of Tal Afar. It is a concrete example of how our strategy is working. The President in his remarks will talk about how we have adapted to circumstances on the ground, we've seen problems and we've changed our approach to meet the realities on the ground.

And he'll go into great detail about how we went about that in Tal Afar. He'll talk about how we moved to a clear, hold and build approach. And in large part it's been successful because of the training and equipping of Iraqi security forces has gone well and because of the efforts we undertook working with local leaders to address some of the problems. And he'll talk about how that's really restored confidence among the people of Tal Afar going forward.

Q Scott, how much of the speech --

MR. McCLELLAN: Hang on, hang on, I'm not to questions yet.

He'll talk about how they still have challenges to overcome, but, again, this is a concrete example of how our strategy is working. And he'll talk about the story of Tal Afar in great detail today.

And then following that he'll be taking questions from the audience, which is the he City Club of Cleveland. Then after that we'll return back to Washington.

Q When Allawi says that Iraq is in the middle of a civil war, what is he talking about?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, I think that General Casey and the Vice President talked about that very issue yesterday. They talked about their views of the situation on the ground. General Casey is someone who is on the ground and has a firsthand account of what is taking place, as is our ambassador, Ambassador Khalilzad and they've expressed their views of the situation on the ground.

The situation remains tense, and the President will talk about that. There continues to be sectarian strife, but what you are seeing is that the Iraqi political leaders are coming together to form a government of national unity. And the President will talk about the importance of the Iraqi political leaders coming together, setting aside political differences, setting aside religious differences and moving forward as quickly as they can to put in place a government that represents all Iraqis.

So I think that that's -- it's important to keep the focus there. The Iraqi leaders are determined to continue to move forward on building a government of national unity. The Iraqi people have shown that they want to come together; they want to chart their own future. Time and time again they have shown that. This is talk we've heard a number of times over the last few years, but every step of the way the Iraqi people have shown that they want to live in freedom and they have defied the terrorists who want to derail that transition to democracy.

Q The President had expressed so much confidence in the past in Allawi, does this leader no longer have any credibility?

MR. McCLELLAN: I'll let him speak for himself. I mean, all I can do is speak to what our people on the ground are seeing and what the Iraqi people are showing. And the Iraqi people are showing that they want to live in freedom and democracy. They've shown that time and time again -- most recently, when more than 11 million showed up at the polls to elect a representative government, a government that is now moving forward on coming into place.

Q What conditions would have to be met to have a civil war? In other words, what conditions are not in effect now that lead you to say there is not a civil war?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, you can, again, look back at what General Casey said yesterday. And I think -- I'll tell you, you know, the Iraqi people have continued to come together because they want to chart their own future. Iraqi political and religious leaders have continued to urge calm and restraint in the aftermath of some of the attacks that took place, particularly the attack on the Golden Mosque.

So Iraqi political leaders are continuing to move forward and they recognize the importance of doing it as quickly as possible to form a government of national unity. They understand the importance of moving as quickly as they can. So I think you have to look at those aspects of what's taking place on the ground.

There is certainly the dramatic images that people see on the TV screens which are much easier to put into a news clip. But there is also real progress being made toward a democratic future for the Iraqi people and I think the President will touch on this a little bit in his remarks.

Q Scott, how much of the speech will be devoted to Tal Afar? I mean, is it largely about Tal Afar?

MR. McCLELLAN: Yes, it is largely telling the story of Tal Afar and how -- you know, it's in the northern part of Iraq, near the Syrian border, and how after the initial liberation al Qaeda tried to make Tal Afar a base of operations. And he'll kind of start from there and then walk through what we have done to get to where things are today in Tal Afar.

Anything else?

Q Is the President hopeful there can be dramatic American troop withdrawals by this fall?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, again, I think General Casey spoke to that yesterday in some of the interviews he gave. What's important is that we continue to focus on winning in Iraq. And we have a clear plan for victory. The Iraqi forces continue to take more of the lead in the fight. They continue to control more of the battle space. And in terms of our troop levels, those will be determined by the commanders on the ground, who will look at the circumstances on the ground. But we have already -- the troop level has already come down several thousand and we are seeing good progress in terms of the training of Iraqi security forces and Iraqi police forces. But there is more work to do.

Q Is there any screening --

MR. McCLELLAN: I think it's important for the Iraqi people to know that we will complete the mission. We will stay there and complete the mission and we will accept nothing less than victory, as the President talked about in his remarks the other day.

Q Is there any screening process on this audience? Or is it just this club and the membership?

MR. McCLELLAN: It's their members, or whoever they -- and whoever they invited.

Q What's your reaction to the elections in Belarus and the reelection of President Lukashenko?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, the United States does not accept the results of the election. The election campaign was conducted in a climate of fear. It included arrests and beatings and fraud. We applaud democrats in Belarus for their courage and peaceful stand to reclaim their freedom. We support their call for a new election. You heard from the OSCE earlier today when they declared that the elections did not meet international standards for free and fair elections.

In cooperation and coordination with the European Union, we're prepared to act against those officials responsible for election fraud and human rights abuses. We also warn authorities in Belarus against threatening or detaining those exercising their political rights in the coming days and beyond. The United States will continue to stand with the people of Belarus and support their aspirations to reclaim their rightful place among the communities of democracy.

Q Is there a possibility of sanctions?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, when I talked about how we will continue to act in cooperation with the European Union, certainly travel restrictions and targeted financial sanctions of individuals are things that we will look at.

Q Any members of Congress on board?

MR. McCLELLAN: No. Anybody coming back with us? I'll double check for the speech.

Q Scott, do you think the President's speeches on the global war on terrorism, do you think they're getting through to the American people?

MR. McCLELLAN: Well, we remain a nation engaged in war, and I think it's important for the President, as Commander-in-Chief, to continue to update the American people about the progress we're making. And I think what's important here on the Iraq speeches is this is ongoing. This is part of a series of speeches. So it's important to continue to put Iraq in the broader context of the nature of the enemy we face and the kind of war that we're engaged in. Iraq is critical to those efforts. Success in Iraq will help inspire reformers in the broader Middle East, and help our efforts to advance freedom in that troubled part of the world.

And so the President will continue to talk about it in the broader context, as well as talking in specific detail about our strategy that we have in place. And it's something that he will continue to do as we move forward. It's an important role that the Commander-in-Chief has.

END 11:45 A.M. EST

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