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Bush Insists Iraqis Will Choose Their Own Leader, Government

By Edwin Chen
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- DEARBORN, Mich.

President Bush shifted his focus Monday from the war with Iraq to its reconstruction, telling hundreds of Arab-Americans that U.S. officials -- while working to create a democracy in the country -- have “no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture.”

At the same time, Bush said Iraq’s eventual government will be one in which “all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected.”

Bush’s message of inclusion and self-rule seemed aimed in part at skeptics, both in the United States and abroad, who have doubted his administration’s motives in overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

“Whether you’re Sunni or Shia or Kurd or Chaldean or Assyrian or Turkoman or Christian or Jew or Muslim, no matter what your faith, freedom is God’s gift to every person in every nation,” Bush said. “As freedom takes hold in Iraq, the Iraqi people will choose their own leaders and their own government.”

The president’s remarks were telecast by several satellite stations widely viewed throughout the Arab world.

His comments also came amid spirited jockeying for power in Iraq, even before a U.S.-backed transitional authority is established. A second meeting on forming the authority took place in Baghdad on Monday.

While the details are being ironed out, U.S. forces generally are giving a wide berth to increasingly assertive Shiite clerics while cracking down on others who have tried to fill the power vacuum. On Sunday, U.S. soldiers arrested a self-proclaimed mayor of Baghdad.

The gathering in Dearborn took on the air of a victory rally, as about 500 Arab-Americans in the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center gave Bush a thunderous welcome. Repeatedly, they interrupted his remarks with standing ovations and chants such as, “We love Bush,” and “U.S.A.”