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Iraq Transition

Bush presses Afghanistan on jailed Christian

President also calls on Iraq's elected leaders to form government

President Bush addresses the crowd in Wheeling, West Virginia, on Wednesday.


White House
George W. Bush

WHEELING, West Virginia (CNN) -- President Bush on Wednesday defended an Afghan who could face the death penalty for converting to Christianity.

Afghan authorities are trying Abdul Rahman, a 41-year-old Christian convert, on charges of rejecting Islam -- an offense that can be penalized by death under Afghanistan's constitution, which is based on Islamic law.

During a speech in West Virginia, Bush said the United States expects Afghan authorities "to honor the universal principle of freedom."

"I'm troubled when I hear -- deeply troubled -- when I hear the fact that a person who has converted away from Islam may be held to account," he said.

"I look forward to working with the government of that country to make sure that people are protected in their capacity to worship." (Watch Afghan Christian's sanity questioned -- 1:55)

U.S. troops overthrew Afghanistan's ruling Taliban, which had harbored al Qaeda, after the terrorist network's September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington. American and NATO troops are now supporting the fledgling government of President Hamid Karzai and battling Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in parts of the country.

Bush said Afghanistan was "coming around" after the overthrow of the Taliban, "but I fully understand there is a lot more work to be done."

In response to a question about Rahman's case, Bush said, "We have got influence in Afghanistan, and we are going to use it."

He added, "It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because he chose a different religion over another."

Rahman's case has illustrated a split in Afghanistan over interpretation of the constitution, which calls for religious freedom while also stating that any Muslim who rejects Islam should be punished by death.

In a statement issued Wednesday afternoon, the Afghan Embassy said Karzai's government is "pursuing the best ways to resolve Mr. Rahman's case judicially."

"Afghanistan's judicial system is currently evaluating questions raised about the mental fitness of Mr. Rahman, the results of which may end the proceedings," the statement said.

Message to Iraqis: 'It's time'

Bush focused most of his remarks in West Virginia Wednesday on the U.S.-led war in Iraq and the as-of-yet unformed Iraqi government.

"Now it's time for a government to get stood up," Bush said. "There's time for the elected representatives -- or those who represent the voters, the political parties -- to come together and form a unity government. That's what the people want. Otherwise they wouldn't have gone to the polls"

The process has been delayed by political infighting since Iraqis voted for a new parliament in December.

Bush told an audience at Capitol Music Hall that he had spoken to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. George Casey, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, and urged them to put pressure on Iraqi lawmakers to build a unified government.

"We talked about the need to make it clearer to the Iraqis that it's time," he said. "It's time to get a government in place that can start leading [Iraq] and listen to the will of the people."

He said he understood the trepidation of Iraqis because of their history, but they were beginning to see the promise of democracy.

Iraqi political leaders plan to meet on Saturday to discuss the formation of a national unity government, a Sunni leader said in Baghdad.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, of the Iraqi Accord Front, said earlier Wednesday that one of the topics is expected to be the formation of a national security council comprising Iraq's top politicians.

Bush's appearance was his third to focus on Iraq in as many days. In a wide-ranging news conference Tuesday, the president rejected the idea that Iraq was in a civil war and suggested that U.S. troops could be deployed there for years. (Transcript of news conference)

Total withdrawal "will be decided by future presidents and future governments of Iraq," he said.

Bush is fighting to reverse plunging approval numbers and opinion polls suggesting American support for the Iraq war is waning.

In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll released this month, 57 percent of respondents said sending troops to Iraq was a mistake, while 42 percent felt the war was not a mistake. Sixty percent believed that things were going badly in Iraq, and 67 percent believe Bush does not have a clear plan for handling the war. (View poll results)

"Despite the latest White House sales campaign, the American people have rightly lost confidence in President Bush's disastrous handling of Iraq," Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, said Wednesday in a written statement.

"America doesn't need a salesman for a dangerously incompetent policy -- we need leadership and a policy that can succeed," he said.

So far, 2,318 U.S. troops have died in Iraq, according to U.S. military reports. In December, Bush estimated that at least 30,000 Iraqis have died.

CNN's Kathleen Koch and Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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