No change in Iraq Deadline

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Tuesday pledged to stick with theplanned June 30 transfer of power in Iraq, but skeptical senatorsfrom both parties pressed top administration officials to explainhow they intend to bring order out of chaos.

Speaking to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Bushsaid he wouldn’t be swayed by killings, suicide bombings and otherattacks intended to prevent the formation of an interim Iraqgovernment.

“The world watches for weakness in our resolve. They will see noweakness,” he said. “We’re flexible in our methods, but our goal isunchanging: Iraq will be free, and Iraq will be a democraticnation.”

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, wereless optimistic at a hearing on the planned power shift. Somequestioned whether Bush’s goal is realistic in a country that hasno tradition of democratic rule. The session brought to the surfacesome of the growing doubts in Congress about the U.S. strategy inIraq.

“Do they want a secular, Western democracy in that country?”asked Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, a key swingstate in this fall’s presidential election. “The American peoplethought – and we were led to believe — we’ll be looked upon asliberators and that they’ll be glad to have us there, but itappears to me that the sooner we get out, the happier they’re goingto be.”

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., an early war supporter, expressedfears that the effort to transform Iraq could fail.

“We’re losing the support of the Iraqi people,” said Biden, thepanel’s top Democrat. “We can’t want freedom for the Iraqi peoplemore than the Iraqi people want it.”

With five weeks left before the scheduled handover, officialscan’t say who’ll take power in Iraq, how much authority the interimgovernment will have or how long it will take to hold nationalelections for a new Iraqi government.

U.S. officials have turned planning for the power shift over toU.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who is trying to come up with a list of30 Iraqis who could fill top jobs in the interim government. DeputySecretary of State Richard Armitage said U.S. officials hope to seethe list by the first week of June.

Top officials from the Pentagon and the State Department wereequally vague about how many U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq orhow long they’ll have to stay.

“I can’t tell you how strong the enemy will be. I can’t predictexactly how things will go,” said Deputy Defense Secretary PaulWolfowitz, one of the chief advocates of the war.

Asked about reports that 135,000 troops will stay in Iraq untilat least the end of next year, Wolfowitz replied, “I really don’tknow.”