President George W. Bush said today it would be a disaster if America’s partners pulled troops out of Iraq.
He was speaking as he left Washington for Italy on the first leg of a visit to Europe during which he will face tough talks with sceptical leaders.
Mr Bush’s three-day visit to Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the Allied liberation of the Italian capital comes as his administration lobbies international support for a new United Nations resolution on the transfer of power to the Iraqi interim government.
While in Europe, the President will encounter some of his fiercest critics on Iraq – the leaders of France and Germany – as well as some of his most stalwart supporters, most notably the prime ministers of Italy and Britain.
Rome and the Vatican were under tight security, with thousands of police on alert before Mr Bush’s arrival late tonight. Various demonstrations, including one tomorrow expected to draw thousands of people, were planned to protest at the war in Iraq.
Premier Silvio Berlusconi said today he was “worried about the possible violence” during anti-Bush protests.
“I am concerned by the conviction among some youths that burning a flag, smashing a window, or worse, gives more force to their ideas. Exactly the opposite is true,” he said in a solemn appeal broadcast live on Italian TV.
“The news we have does not leave us calm,” he added, a reference to claims by some anti-war activists that they might try to disrupt the visit.
Before leaving the US capital for Rome, Mr Bush met with one of his closest allies, Australian prime minister John Howard, at the White House.
Mr Howard gave the President a renewed vote of confidence, gently warning European allies that “it is the worst time imaginable” for them to waver on Iraq and pledging to keep his country’s 850 troops in Iraq.
“We will maintain a presence in Iraq until the job… has been completed,” Mr Howard said.
“This is not a time – it is the worst time imaginable – for allies to be showing any weakness in relation to the pursuit of our goals in Iraq.”
When asked whether Australia’s commitment to Iraq would change if a different prime minister were to be elected later this year, Mr Bush replied: “It would be a disastrous decision for the leader of a great country like Australia to say ‘We are pulling out’.”
Mr Howard, who has served three terms as premier, is expected to call an election before one is held in the United States in November. His likely opponent, Labour Party leader Mark Latham, has accused him of leading Australia into a fruitless conflict by sending troops to Iraq.
Pulling out of Iraq, Mr Bush said, sends the wrong signals to the Iraqi people and to terror operatives looking for a toehold in that country.
“It would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq. It would embolden the enemy who believe that they can shake our will… They think that the western world, and the free world, is weak; that when times get tough we will shirk our duty to those who long for freedom and we’ll leave.”
Mr Bush has been sharply questioned by world leaders about whether the United States intends to allow Iraq to take complete control of its affairs. The United States plans to keep 135,000 soldiers in Iraq even after the June 30 handover of power by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority, raising questions about the new Iraqi government’s authority.
Mr Bush says the interim government will have full authority.
In Rome, Bush will mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Rome tomorrow and also have an audience with the Pope, who is a prominent critic of the Iraq war, and a meeting with Mr Berlusconi.
From the Italian capital, Mr Bush will go to Paris to try to narrow differences with French President Jacques Chirac, who led the opposition to the Iraq war but seems interested in improving relations.
On Sunday, Mr Bush will stand at the American cemetery in Normandy on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach and the English Channel. The cemetery contains the graves of 9,386 American military dead, most of whom gave their lives during the D-Day landings and ensuing battles.
Mr Bush will join a gathering of world leaders that will for the first time include a German Chancellor to mark the events of June 6, 1944.
Just as events in Europe determined the outcome of the Cold War, events in the Middle East will determine the fate of the fight against terrorism, Mr Bush said.
He said that, beyond jailing terrorists, free nations must nurture openness in oppressed societies to head-off the resentment and anger that breeds violence.
“If that region is abandoned to dictators and terrorists it will be a constant source of violence and alarm, exporting killers of increasing destructive power to attack America and other free nations,” Mr Bush said.
“If that region grows in democracy and prosperity and hope the terrorist movement will lose its sponsors, lose its recruits and lose the festering grievances that keep terrorists in business.”
About 10,000 Italian police will be deployed during President Bush’s visit. Most of the centre of Rome will be closed to traffic.
Villa Taverna, the American ambassador’s residence in a posh neighbourhood where Mr Bush is expected to stay, was also under tight security today, and nearby streets were cordoned off, news reports said.
The airspace over Rome will be closed to private aircraft during the visit, authorities said, while commercial flights at the capital’s two main airports will be briefly suspended during the President’s arrival and Saturday departure.