December 2, 2006
Hagel: U.S. departure would not turn Iraq into terror
BY JAKE THOMPSON
WASHINGTON - Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska says he never has believed Iraq would become a terrorist refuge, a key justification President Bush has made for continuing U.S. military involvement in the Mideast nation.
"I have never been persuaded to believe that whether we stay there six months, a year or two years, that if we would leave, that somehow Iraq turns into a haven for terrorists," Hagel said.
His comments came Thursday in a speech to the Meridian International Center, a nonprofit organization that promotes understanding between nations through exchanges of people, ideas and the arts. Hagel's wife, Lilibet, is a member of Meridian's board.
Earlier that day, Bush met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and said terrorists hoping to take over Iraq are behind the violent insurgency.
Bush said al-Qaida, the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, wants a haven in Iraq.
"One of our goals is to deny safe haven for al-Qaida in Iraq, and the Maliki government expects us and wants us to provide that vital part of security," Bush said. "We're going to stay in Iraq to get the job done, so long as the government wants us there."
Hagel, a Republican, said Iraq's neighbors, including two with uneasy relations with the United States, wouldn't allow a terrorist state to arise in Iraq.
"A terrorist nation, a terrorist state, is certainly not in the interest of the Syrian government or the interests of the Iranian government, or of Jordan, or of any of those governments there," Hagel said.
He noted that when U.S. military forces invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks, that country was under the control of al-Qaida.
"There were terrorists in Afghanistan," Hagel said. "And they were using Afghanistan as staging areas, as training camps. They had free run of the country."
One country the United States worked closely with was Iran. It provided intelligence and other help to the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, Hagel said.
Iran acted in its own self-interest, as do all nations, he said. Its government was concerned about the rise of terrorism on its border.
Today, Hagel said, Iran exerts more influence inside of Iraq than any other nation. Many of the Iraqi government's leaders are Shiites who lived in exile in Iran during the reign of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
Whatever stability might eventually emerge in Iraq will come through the efforts of the Iraqi people and those of neighboring countries to find "some common consensus and interests," Hagel said.
He has called for the United States to begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal from Iraq, but with no specific timetables.
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