Iran and Syria told to stop foreign fighters going to Iraq

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The Independent US

President Bush yesterday demanded that Iran and Syria close porous borders that he claimed were allowing "foreign fighters" to enter Iraq and carry out terrorist strikes.

On a day which brought a fresh spate of attacks, including a suicide bombing that killed six, and the news that one of Baghdad's deputy mayors had been assassinated, President Bush blamed Ba'ath Party loyalists and foreign operatives for the ongoing violence.

"It is dangerous in Iraq because there are some who believe we are soft, that the will of the United States can be shaken by suiciders," Mr Bush said. "We are working closely [with Syria and Iran] to let them know we expect them to enforce borders to stop people coming across."

Earlier, his spokesman, Scott McClellan, said he would not want to speculate on who was behind the recent attacks, but added: "We're making it very clear to [Syria and Iran] that they need to also take action to stop that cross-border infiltration. And they know what those concerns are and we expect them to act to address those issues."

Military and intelligence officials are divided over who is responsible for the increasingly organised and coordinated attacks, which on Monday targeted the Baghdad offices of the Red Crossand several police stations. Thirty-five people were killed and 230 injured in Baghdad's bloodiest day since Saddam Hussein was ousted.

Mr Bush and his senior officials are involved in a determined PR campaign to try to persuade the American public that progress is being made in Iraq and that much of the positive news in not getting through the "media filter".

But he is not having it all his way. Last week he suffered an embarrassing defeat on Capitol Hill when the Senate voted to turn part of an $87bn request for Iraqi reconstruction into loans rather than grants. At the international donors conference in Madrid at the weekend much of the money pledged by other countries was also in the form of loans

Perhaps partly as a result of Mr Bush's visible difficulties in obtaining international support, recent polls suggested the American public is losing trust in the President's ability to deal with the situation in Iraq and prevent the US from being immersed in a quagmire similar to the situation in Vietnam 25 years ago.

Aware of the danger that both this and the escalating violence in Iraq represent to his re-election fortunes, Mr Bush used his Rose Garden press conference at the White House yesterday to repeat what has become a regular theme: that the so-called war on terror launched in the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September, 2001, now has its focus in Iraq.

"Basically, what they [the attackers] are trying to do is cause people to run," he said. "They want to kill and create chaos. That's the nature of a terrorist. That's what terrorists do. They're not going to intimidate America. The terrorists rely on the death of innocent people to create the conditions of fear that therefore will cause people to lose their will. That's their strategy. And it's a pretty clear strategy to me. It's in our interest that we do our job for the free world."

Mr Bush twice compared the assaults in Iraq to the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, though he did not claim Saddam Hussein's regime was involved in the hijackings. He said: "It's the same mentality, by the way, that attacked us on 11 September 2001. Just destroy innocent life and watch the great United States and their friends and allies, you know, crater in the face of hardship. [We] must never forget the lessons of 11 September.''

One of the biggest challenges facing Mr Bush and his senior military advisers is the development of a realistic exit strategy from Iraq. While the White House has indicated it would like to reduce the current US military presence from 130,000 troops to around 50,000 within 12 months, most analysts say that is probably unrealistic given the current violence.

Mr Bush is regularly asked about his comments at the beginning of May when he announced an end to "major combat operations" in Iraq. Yesterday he declined to be drawn on when the US may be in a position to pull out of Iraq. "I think you ought to look at my speech," he said. "I said Iraq's a dangerous place. We got hard work to do, there's still more to be done."