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RIGA (Reuters) - President George W. Bush brushed aside talk of civil war in Iraq on Tuesday and insisted the United States would not withdraw its forces before its mission of building a stable democracy there was complete.
Rejecting growing skepticism by allies and influential voices within the United States about his aim of spreading democratic change in the Middle East, Bush said he remained committed to that agenda.
"Some doubt whether the people of that region are ready for freedom, or want it badly enough, or have the courage to overcome the forces of totalitarian extremism," Bush said in the Latvian capital Riga where he is attending a NATO summit. "I understand these doubts but I do not share them."
Bush said he would press Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom he will meet in Jordan this week, on strategies for quelling the worst sectarian bloodshed since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
But he added in a speech at the University of Latvia: "There is one thing I'm not going to do. I am not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete."
Jordan's King Abdullah, who will dine with both leaders on Wednesday night, told the ABC talk show "This Week" that "something dramatic" must come out of the Bush-Maliki meeting to stop the violence spinning out of control.
Asked earlier at a news conference in Estonia what was the difference between the current bloodshed in Iraq and civil war, Bush said the latest bombings were part of a nine-month-old pattern of attacks by al Qaeda militants.
Iraq is grappling with a series of retaliatory attacks after a car bombing in a Shi'ite neighbourhood of Baghdad last Thursday killed more than 200 people last week.
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said Iraq is close to civil war and the U.S. television network NBC has already labeled it one.
But Bush said the latest wave of unrest began last February when a Shi'ite mosque was bombed in Samarra, north of Baghdad.
"We've been in this phase for a while," Bush said. "There's a lot of sectarian violence taking place -- fomented in my opinion because of these attacks by al Qaeda causing people to seek reprisal."
Bush is facing growing pressure to shift course on Iraq after voters ousted his Republican Party from power in Congress this month. A number of Democrats are urging a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops starting in four to six months.
He is awaiting recommendations for Iraq from a panel led by former secretary of state James Baker and ex-congressman Lee Hamilton.
The Iraq Study Group, which will present its findings in December, may recommend that Bush convene a regional conference on Iraq and that he consider talking directly to Iran and Syria to solicit their help.
But Bush said that said while Iraq's government was free to talk to Iran about helping end the violence, U.S. terms for direct talks with Tehran were unchanged -- that it stop enriching uranium for its nuclear programme.
"As far as the United States goes, Iran knows how to get to the table with us, which is to do that which they said they would do, which is verifiably suspend their enrichment programme," he said in Tallinn.
The Bush administration and some Western allies believe Iran's nuclear programme is aimed at developing nuclear weapons. Tehran says it is purely for electricity generation.
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