Bush visits Asia as Iraq row rumbles at home

WASHINGTON - US President George W. Bush will leave Washington's politics for six days next week to attend the APEC summit in Sydney, with the rumbling domestic row over the Iraq war ringing in his ears.

Days before two reports that could affect the future of Bush's bid to calm the blood-soaked country where thousands of US troops have died, he must first show his commitment to a region crucial to global trade by attending a major summit in Asia.

"Even though this will be a very hot political season in Washington, this president is committed to this region ... for very good reasons," Dennis Wilder, the National Security Council's senior Asia director told reporters.

"Our economic future is tied to this region. Our security future is tied to this region."

The White House said Bush would stay informed on discussions of Iraq policy 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) away during his trip to the east, which comes days ahead of the next key stages in the US domestic debate.

Bush will cut short his attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in order to return next Sunday to Washington in time for long anticipated reports to Congress on progress in Iraq by the top US general there, David Petraeus, and the ambassador to Baghdad, Ryan Crocker.

Their briefings will be the lead-in to a formal report the White House is to make to Congress on September 15, aimed at convincing US lawmakers to continue funding the war nine months after Bush launched his last-ditch troop "surge."

Opposition Democrats who control the House of Representatives and Senate have been pushing for months to force a deadline for US troops to leave Iraq, while Bush and his generals have argued for time to make the surge work, with tens of thousands of extra troops dispatched to put down violence.

To get back in time for the reports, Bush has also given up planned side trips to Japan and to Singapore, where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were to celebrate their 30th anniversary.

His top adviser on Asian affairs meanwhile fended off allegations from other regions -- Latin America, for example -- that he is focusing completely on the Middle East and ceding ground in global relations to aggressively expanding China.

"I've heard it. I am not sure that it is very valid," he insisted ahead of the trip.

"If you look at the president's commitments in this region, the fact that he's gone to every APEC summit, and even to Shanghai right after 9/11, you will remember, he made the trip to Asia."

In an interview with foreign media Thursday, Bush argued that the United States was still key to the APEC region's economy.

"I see the United States as the big driver for trade ... I believe the relations with the United States and the Asian Pacific region have never been better," he said.

He added that Asia holds a possible example for the Middle East. "Asia is a place where we've spilt a lot of blood in the past, and now it's a place of peace."

He said the region is a reminder that "it's possible for enemies to be allies and for enemies to be friends. It's a lesson for a lot of us to think about when we think about the Middle East, that forms of government matter, and hopeful societies yield peace."

Bush said his main agenda at the APEC summit would be to unstick frozen world trade talks and promote the US plan for dealing with global warming.

But Iraq will be an important subject too, especially with host Australia, an ally of the United States in Iraq.

Bush is planning to meet with Australia's opposition Labour Party chief Kevin Rudd, who last week said he would withdraw Australian combat forces from Iraq by mid-2008 if he wins the premiership from John Howard in elections to take place by January.

"I look forward to sharing my views, and would ask, if he were to win, that he consider conditions on the ground before making any decisions; that what matters is success," Bush told Australia's Sky News. "We need all our coalition partners."

09/02/2007 01:23 GMT

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